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on color categories + naming

July 18, 2012

I read a fascinating study that a friend recently shared with me, where researchers studied how quickly individuals would distinguish two colors based on whether they had a specific word for the color. Take for example the Korean colors of yeondu and chorok. English speakers would see these colors and refer to them both as “green.” One is slightly more yellow, but our naming category for them is green. To Korean speakers, however, these are not shades of green. They are both basic colors. Koreans not only recognize them as different colors, but they can quickly and easily identify them when presented within a sea of green color swatches, much like English speakers would quickly distinguish between blue and green. Likewise, the Tarahumara tribe in Northwest Mexico would not quickly distinguish between blue and green because they do not have separate naming categories for these colors.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of naming – how we name stuff into existence. This week, we waited in anticipation of the arrival of several friends’ babies. We checked our phones an insane number of times as we waited for the text messages announcing new life and presenting the babies’ names. Naming a child gives her identity.  It creates a unique category for who she is as a person in this life.

Naming changes how we view the world.

Inspired by the book One Thousand Gifts, my friends and I are keeping a list of things that we are grateful for in our daily lives. We are naming that which we are grateful – small things like a child’s laughter or the smell of a brand new book. By filtering our life through a category of gratitude, we can more easily identify those things we are grateful for. A quick walk to the coffee shop becomes a fully-present moment, with gratitude for the morning sun and the summer hum of cicadas.

Naming gives identity; it gives purpose and form to the shapeless.

If something is nameless, there is no easy way of recognizing it. At the very least, it takes much longer to recognize. I am realizing this most markedly in how I deal with fear. Fear is a weighty, soul-sucking thing. But naming a fear gives it form, shape, and identity. Why would anyone want to name their fears? Because in naming it, you create a category for it and it becomes recognizable. You can call it what it is, instead of letting it hover, shapeless, around you. Refusing to name something – refusing to call something what it is – just creates fear of the thing itself.

Naming is freeing.

Photo from Marie Claire Idees

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