It’s All in the Naming

Language and our use of words has a powerful effect on our way of visioning or seeing the world. In profound ways, many experiences invite an examination of how “it’s all in the naming.” Naming is deeply powerful in both reflecting and shaping how we see and how we relate with our world. Used everyday, sometimes consciously, often unconsciously, the power of naming challenges us to watch our language in profound ways.

“Wastebasket/Resource Basket”

Holding up a wastebasket, an invention of over 100 years ago, a speaker asked his audience these questions, “What if this had been named a resource basket? If it had been named differently, would we not have seen it differently, and thus related with it differently? Had it been named a resource basket, would not what was deposited into it have been perceived as valuable instead of as something to be buried in a garbage dump?” In that period of U.S. history, the chosen name reflected the perception that resources were unlimited and that waste was easily disposed of and forgotten. Is not this form of seeing and naming very apparent yet today?


A student from Africa invited his classmates to reflect on how the words rich and poor are used. He observed that, while the United States is usually named rich, his experiences in the U.S. included locking doors, being unable to make eye contact with others as he walked down the street, and watching over his shoulder wherever he went. On the other hand, in his native land of Tanzania, which is frequently named as poor, he experienced a deep, joyful sense of community; open doors; and freedom to stroll about without fear. The questions are: “Who is really rich?” “Who is really poor?”

Other Examples

Developed, undeveloped, and underdeveloped are commonly perceived and defined in relation to economic wealth, which is a fundamental value in a free market, consumer-oriented society. Globe-seeing, naming, relating with but, what if a country’s wealth was seen and named relative to the quality of life and the quality of relationships? Within such a perspective, what if the indicators of a country’s Gross National Well-being (GNW) received equal or greater value than indicators of the Gross National Product (a U.S. economic marker)? GNW would name, reflect, and shape a markedly different world than GNP (or comparable indices in other countries).

Watching our language is a powerful way to build and nurture a just and peaceful society. It is a power with and for others that everyone has — from everyday conversations to writings to public speaking.

Naming is a vital part of the circle of seeing and relating with our world. Naming our world with love and respect, as we would have others do unto us, is fundamental in walking gently and compassionately on the earth.