Do names matter?

“Names – and in particular the names of the other living things around us – help us make sense of the world… A strong case can be made for the idea that when we know the names of living creatures, it helps us appreciate the diversity of the natural world, and treat other species better.”
– Stephen Moss

There is a power in names and naming.  By naming, we notice.  Without names, we can be blind to what is around us.  When we don’t know the names of plants, for example, we overlook them.  By naming, we can see the differences between this and that, we can notice the way the beak curves on this bird but not on that.  Names help us to see.

Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.”
– Robert MacFarlane

Without a name, we cannot easily discuss something.  And if we can’t talk about it, how will we know it, understand it and protect it?

Species names matter.  Wild dogs have had many names, some which denigrated them to a feral and dangerous animal which made it easier to kill them.  The population plummeted – calling them wild dogs made them sound like they had gone rogue, as if they were once tamed and had broken free and thus pest control methods were needed.  As painted wolves, or painted dogs, however, beauty was seen in them and now populations are increasing.

The right name can help us see a species differently and can change our instinctive attitude towards them.  More positive names can inspire a sense of pride and illicit a protective response.  If you want another example, would you prefer to save a hairy nosed otter or a furry nosed otter?  If you’re being honest with yourself, your gut reaction was the latter wasn’t it?  Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.

A study which looked at otters and how likely people were to protect them based purely on their name showed that “furry nosed otter” was more likely to be conserved when compared to “hairy nosed otter” or “Southeast Asian otter”.  Similarly, “rainforest otter” was more likely to be conserved than the “giant otter”.

Other studies have reiterated the affect a name can have on the public’s likelihood to support species specific conservation efforts.  Think about the orca vs the killer whale.  They are one and the same but one name is more likely to get a positive response than the other.

“When advocating for increased conservation of a species, conservationists and researchers should consider using an alternative name that would entice a stronger positive reaction from the general public. It is possible that such a “rebranding” of otter names might potentially increase public concern and their value as a flagship species… It should also be noted that a species named after something that is already highly publicized as in danger of extinction, or degradation, would receive more attention and conservation concern than a species that is not.”
– Caitlyn Scott

There is another way that naming can help conservation, and that is on an individual level.  By giving an individual animal a name, we are giving it space to have it’s own identity and for us to have our own unique and personal relationship with that individual.  Think about the outcry surrounding the shooting of Cecil the lion.  That he had a name mattered, and there is power in the fact that I managed to remember his name a number of years later.  There was a global response and an increase in donations to related charities.  But what about the many other lions which die each year?  It’s been suggested that as Cecil had both an English name and was well known, his death made more of an impact.  David the chimpanzee is another example of how naming an individual can raise their profile.  By giving animals names, we create a way of knowing them and if we know them, it’s much harder for us to see them hurt or killed.

When we look at conservation rhetoric, we tend to see species wide discussions which makes perfect sense, but this makes it harder for us to have a relationship with, and thus care for, them.  It also makes it easier for the individual’s wellbeing to be disregarded, they are just one in a sea of many.  Instead, by naming individuals, we make space for empathy and for connection, instead of alienation.

Naming individuals can also give us a way of engaging in discussions about the plight of a species in a way that is more emotive and more relatable than is possible in a species wide conversation.  Named individuals, arguably, offer a more accessible way into conservation.  And the more we can discuss conservation and act accordingly, the better.


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