Why Are We Obsessed With Naming Things?
In today’s culture, we coin a new term for every phenomenon and trend. Here’s what’s behind the human tendency to name.
When I was a little girl, my dad and I had our own secret language. One of the most prevalent words we used was “bohono,” a term my dad coined to teach me about lying. He would use his pointer finger and gesture an imaginary pinocchio nose within thin air, and would say, “Are you telling me a bohono?” By the time I was in high school, the word became our code. I would text him during the state of an emergency at my first house parties, and on my first dates with boys—he would immediately come to pick me up, no questions asked from my one worded text: bohono.
When I was twenty-two, my dad passed away, and now, in my late twenties, I think about our code words and phrases all the time. I no longer get to speak our confidential language with him, but I know the etymology of it all too well. To other’s voyeuristically overhearing our conversations, it must have sounded like a load of gibberish. But, it’s not just me and my dad who are the masterminds behind our own little words, and sitcom bit-worthy catch-phrases, even going on to name and personify objects because, well, it’s fun (duh!). It’s a widespread cultural phenomenon, and may be a tale as old as time: the intrinsic need to identify and name something, tailoring and claiming it as your own. And no, I’m not necessarily talking about adding -core or insert -girl to the tailend of a “new” pseudo-style aesthetic or social trend.
Coining phrases is the Roman Empire of all Roman Empires. Almost ritualistically, as we enter into a new year, there is always a litany of splashy news reports on the youngest generation's new slang —To which older boomer generations utilize to cause hullabaloo, shaking their virtual canes in the comments of the Times, saying, “those damn hooligans!” In the digital age, there is no surprise that the colloquialisms are born, live on, to then later die, and are buried in the internet graveyard, an easy Google search away; once new terms, and catch-phrases are coined by an even younger generation. Historically, new age internet slang is swiped from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and problematically passed on as an entirely new digital vocabulary within culture at large.
Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2023 is ‘rizz,’ essentially a shorthand term for charisma, “pertaining to someone’s ability to attract another person through style, charm, or attractiveness.” Or ‘gyat,’ slang for a big butt. Or what about the viral, albeit confusing ‘fanum tax’? A tax created by a content creator who jokingly taxes his friends by taking bits of their food while eating. A lot of Gen Alpha’s terminology is causing Gen Z and millennials to have an existential relevance crisis, much like the boomers before us. And these are just some of the new age catch-phrases, and words, conjured up and used by thirteen year olds.
But what about the words, and sitcom bits we privately use and create with those close to us and pass off as an inside joke before it goes viral? What about the idiosyncratic terms that we frequently use and mutter to ourselves to lighten our days?
“I’d say my experiences are typically as follows,” says Hannah Spangenberg, Social Media & Influencer Manager. “You’re on a trip or out with a group of friends and someone says a word or a phrase and then another person immediately repeats it. The word is usually something that stands out in conversation. The immediate follow up restatement seals the word in [said] group’s brain.” Spangenberg and her close knit group of friends have an entire dictionary of inside words and phrases that they use together.
Some of her most commonly used catch-phrases include, “‘m’lady’ insert gesture of tipping an invisible hat” and it is used “any time anyone opens the door for me, [and or] moves out of my way.” The term is rooted as a greeting form that is “an ironic nod to the time when men used to wear fancy hats often and tip them as a sign of respect, but in today’s context, [it’s used] for the purpose of ‘the bit.’” Another sitcom bit Spangenberg and her circle of friends regularly use is “for legal reasons of course,” which is a phrase that she uses to make a point and “to put a strong emphasis on the need to do something, even if it’s not necessarily important or necessary.” (I.E: “I will be taking a break from going out this weekend—for legal reasons of course” example also provided by Spangenberg.)
Similarly, content creator Keara Sullivan uses the word ‘flobbering,’ that she and her family created and use on a regular basis with each other. It “refers to the act of lying in bed and doing absolutely nothing.” Sullivan clarifies that ‘flobbering’ has no negative connotation and is the “best way to spend one’s time.” A personal phrase the comedian and content creator uses is ‘a Sisyphus chore,’ which refers to any basic and routine home chore that “makes me feel like Sisyphus pushing up a boulder for all eternity.”
It’s not lost on Sullivan how this phenomenon is oxymoronic. How commonplace it’s become to hyper-individualize words in order to establish a sense of community. It’s the ultimate social ice breaker, a way to self-mythologize and identify yourself to others, so they can in turn, reflect and process, to then self-mythologize and identify themselves within and to you. Ergo, we are essentially living within a sitcom bit simulation, regardless if it’s on the internet or IRL. “It’s a really satisfying feeling to finally be able to succinctly identify something you’ve noticed going on in the world. It’s the same feeling you get when you forget a word and it’s on the tip of your tongue, and suddenly it clicks,” Sullivan shares. Most notably, Sullivan received virality for when she coined “The Jennifer Lawrence Pipeline,” a term for the formulaic and unrealistic standards of women, especially in Hollywood—the rise, overexposure, and subsequent downfall that occurs to women in the public eye.
Poet and faculty coordinator at Columbia Law School, Rishona Michael has her own little catch phrase that she uses in awkward situations that has caught on, almost subconsciously amongst her circle of friends. Anytime there is a moment where Michael is uncomfortable, she will say ‘tee hee’ in a pause of silence. “I used to say ‘ha ha’ when I was in awkward situations (right before presenting a presentation for example or the seconds after I finished reading a poem). So it was used to diffuse the tension, in ways, and then ‘ha ha’ turned into ‘tee hee’ at some point,” Michaels tells me. Though, ‘tee hee’ isn’t an internet term, it still has that sitcom bit charm, as it is an expression of self, similar to the sing-along song sound-bites from summer camp.
Oftentimes, these private dialects are associated with embarrassing couple speak. You know, pet names that couples assign to each other, objects, and even each other’s body parts (Ex: ‘Princess Sophia’ in How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, and the subsequent ‘Love Fern’). Essentially, the adult version and love language of baby talk, where couples will add superfluous amounts of syllabus to the beginning or ends of any words commonly used amongst each other. When I was talking about this piece with culture journalist and critic, Madeline Howard, she relayed to me how couples specifically get lost in the invention of their own vernacular worlds, “romantic couples do this language thing too where you have your own little language in the relationship,” she shares. These secret and private lingos are a love language with its own customized dictionary (Merriam-Webster can beg to differ). Not to mention, people also use this form of baby talk with their four legged friends (no matter how cringe).
This cultural phenomenon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as long as we crave the need for hyper-personalized connection. And though, sometimes I am sad and blue in the face that I don’t get to use my code word ‘bohono’ with my dad anymore, especially in moments of emergency, riddled with high panic anxiety or whenever I have the urge to send him a silly update text. I know it’s a sitcom bit that is distinctly ours, a word that is distinctly ours, even if he is no longer here to share it with me, but now I get to choose who else is invited into my own catch phrase simulation —and maybe even coin a new term or phrase or two with friends, and chosen family along the way, as the linguist behind my love language.