Names matter. Some traditions endow them with magical power, as in the Rumpelstiltskin tale. A new name on entering a religious order can signal a change in status. Companies and not-for-profits rebrand themselves. Individuals change names to better match their sense of self. I try to call people what they prefer, short of “Your Majesty” or “My Lord and Master.”
Fresh sensibilities set off a flurry of renaming. Forts Benning and Hood, named for Confederate generals, are now Fort Moore and Fort Cavazos. In the food aisles, Aunt Jemima is now the Pearl Milling Company, and Eskimo Pie is now Edy’s Pie. The former Redskins are now the Washington Commanders; the former Cleveland Indians, the Guardians. Debate rages case by case over whether historical figures who held slaves should be deleted from institutional names.
Names trigger bias even in the well-intended. Faculty evaluations of fictitious applicants Karen and Brian differed on otherwise identical resumes. A friend with a Scandinavian name is abashed to be treated better than her sister, whose name sounds more stereotypically Black. When I changed from a “Miss” to a “Mrs.” long ago, I was startled by the deep chagrin of any who used the wrong term. They seemed to think they’d insulted me.
Birds won’t notice when the American Ornithological Society assigns descriptive English names to dozens of species in place of terms referring to people. Birdsongs won’t change, but listeners might. Would a rose renamed “garbageweed” still smell as sweet? That depends on the person doing the smelling.
Image: Long-tailed duck, Wolfgang Wander, 2006. Called derogatory “oldsquaw” in the 1900s.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.