My wife and I recently had to pick out some paint. She is the one with the eye for color, so I just went along to keep her company. We went to a local Sherwin-Williams paint store. And I was bedazzled.
Their wall of paint chips has 1,200 different colors to examine. I found it hard to follow the progression from light green to slightly lighter green to just slightly lighter green. Or shades of blue, or even shades of grey.
What I found fascinating was that each and every color had a name. In the blues, there was Favorite Jeans, and Languid Blue, and Moody Blue — just to name a few variations. I found myself thinking, some actual person at Sherwin-Williams has a job thinking up names for paint chips.
To the paint store employee, Languid Blue is actually SW6226, and the chips could simply have numbers instead of names. But how much more exciting to know that Languid Blue works well with Urban Jungle, that that SW6226 is complementary with SW9117.
All in all, I’d say the chip-namer at S-W had some fun. There was Moscow Midnight, and Bitter Chocolate. Then I spied Seawashed Glass (light green), Baby Bok Choy (lighter green) and even Stay in Lime (lime green). Nice pun, that last one, but our chipper also knew her cultural references. Bohemian Black evokes the fifties, but also the band Queen. And there was Big Chill (a cold white), and Enigma (possibly the WWII decoder, or the cosmic band). At Ease Soldier was appropriately khaki. And what color could represent “Cyberspace”? I leave it to your imagination.
I know who is guilty of starting this cute color branding thing. It is Crayola. Remember Burnt Sienna? As a kid, I found that name fascinating and never forgot it. Fortunately for my sense of color orientation, the Crayola Company has largely kept to the conventional. I recently dug out a 64-color box of my grandson’s crayons, and found that white was white and black was black. Red was red, and green was green. When it came to shades, the company was reassuringly staid: olive green, brick red, red orange. Unfortunately, someone at Crayola got re-infected with the playful-naming bug, and a few outliers have crept in: purple mountains’ majesty, tickle me pink, timberwolf (gray), and one real zinger — mauvelous.
There is a serious purpose for this article: human culture has entered a dangerous period of hyper-naming. We are awash in cutesy and meaningless names that may overtax our brains — or at least crowd out more important information like who was Deng Xiaoping, or which American President said “The business of America is business.”
Hyper-naming; it’s a scourge. In 1952, my father was reassigned from Morrison Air Force Base in Florida to Ladd AFB in Alaska. He then drove our family 5,000 miles from West Palm Beach to Fairbanks. I was nine and my brother was seven. There were no Happy Meals along the way. No MacDonalds, no Pizza Hut, not even a Chuck E. Cheese. But there was Howard Johnson’s, and we kids knew that they had an astonishing 28 flavors of ice cream available when we stopped. Our favorite was Peppermint Stick, which is pretty easy to interpret, and about as wild as HoJo’s ever got.
Baskin-Robbins had just gotten started in 1953, but they pushed 31 flavors, ranging from vanilla to Rocky Road. Of those 31, thirty were pretty self-explanatory — with the possible exception of Date Nut. That was long ago. Today, Baskin-Robbins includes such puzzlers as Jamoca, Baseball Nut, and Splish Splash. Those last three are all trademarked, by the way, in case any competitor tries to offer a fake Jamoca to an unsuspecting kid.
But if you think Baskin-Robbins got a little overly creative, then you will agree with me that Ben & Jerry’s has gone hog wild. In my local supermarket I have a choice of Chunky Monkey, Caramel Sutra, and Phish Food. The puns and pop culture references go on and on, even including Everything But The… All of these names are trademarked. In including my least favorite, Chubby Hubby, which my wife is wont to call me despite trademark restrictions.
Which brings me to the third example of hyper-naming: Babies. Americans appear to take real delight in giving unique or unusual names to their children. Thus Mary and Peter Teachout named their daughter Zephyr Rain and their son Woden. My wife, an editor and publisher, carried articles by a writer named Crescent Dragonwagon. My daughter dated Burleigh Sunflower, and I went to high school with April Showers. On cable news, you can hear analysis from Krystal Ball.
This is a freedom that Americans take for granted: parents can name their children anything they want to. This was recently brought home by an incident involving a girl named Abcde Redford.
Abcde and her mother were boarding a Southwest Airlines flight to El Paso. The agent thought the girl’s name was hilarious and pointed it out to other employees, in front of the girl. The mother objected. Then the agent took a snapshot of the girl’s boarding pass and posted it on Facebook. Ha Ha. Then the media picked it up, including the Washington Post. The airline apologized: “We extend our sincere apology to the family. We take great pride in extending our Southwest Hospitality to all of our Customers, which includes living by the Golden Rule and treating every individual with respect, in person or online.”
What is interesting in this story is that everyone automatically assumed that Traci Redford could name her daughter anything she wanted to. Regardless of the certainty that Abcde will be teased mercilessly as she travels through primary school and middle school. In Ireland, Traci Redford would have been called in for a conversation with a social worker when the girl was first named. In Iceland, the name would have been forbidden, since it is not on their list of 1,800 approved names for girls. Denmark, far more liberal, allows 18,000 female names. But in the United States, anything goes.
My guess is that the hyper-naming trend will overwhelm all resistance. Parents have already tried “Superman” in Sweden, “Strawberry” in France, and “Facebook” in Mexico. All were rejected. But mark my words, these naming walls will crumble.
All in all, and whether commercial or personal, the naming bug is viral. And while ice cream names may be limited, the human eye can discern more than 7,000,000 shades of color. Seven Million! But if you think that’s the bee’s knees (a good ice cream name?) then contemplate this: every year, more than 141 million babies are born. So perhaps Abcde won’t be teased by her classmates after all, since they may be named Nutella, Escroto, and Lmnop.
Adam Corson-Finnerty is an occasional writer on politics and culture. He lives with his wife and five cats in Southampton, PA.