Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

The entry in Sibley’s Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.

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