Nomenclature

One of the fundamental methods in which we humans understand the world around us is by means of classification, and one of the fundamental steps in classification is nomenclature. When we give an object (animate or inanimate) a name, we take a massive step towards understanding it and appreciating it. An entity without a name is extremely hard to fathom, and it can be argued that the lack of a name can turn something into a non-entity.

It is thus standard practice that when something is created, it be given a name. And this applies to fellow human beings as well – until a name is applied, a newborn Homo sapiens remains an “it” – almost a non-entity. With the application of a name, “it” becomes a person, and gets an identity of its own.

As we have been discovering over the last few months, finding a name for a t0-be-born baby is a non-trivial process. The number of considerations that must be taken into consideration is humongous, for this set of words is going to fundamentally determine how this to-be-born will be viewed by the world for the duration of its lifetime.

For starters, the name should sound pleasant, and should be reasonably easy to pronounce for most of the people the to-be-born will encounter during the course of its life. Second, the name in entirety should seem cohesive – think of all those names where some part of character is lost because first and last names somehow don’t “match”.

Then, while there might be an argument that the name is simply an identifier for the said entity, we should also take into consideration the meaning of the said collection of syllables. This meaning should be something aesthetically pleasing to both the parents, and (hopefully) to the to-be-born.

Some people go so far as to name their kids after certain qualities, either physical or otherwise, and then it becomes a lifelong (and sometimes futile) adventure of the said kids to simply live up to their names!

And then there is a separate set of factors that many might find trivial, but can nonetheless be important. One must consider, for example, the possible nicknames and diminutives that might stem from the name, and these (apart from the name itself) need to be palatable. Next, the name should be “contemporary”, so that the to-be-born’s name doesn’t look misplaced in terms of era.

Then, this is a possibly recent phenomenon, but there is the uniqueness factor. As one hostel T-shirt at IIT Madras in the early 2000s put it, “na bhUtO, na bhavishyati” – there should never have been one, and there should never be one other with the same name. And so people try to find names that are unique – but not so unique that it (the name) becomes a point of ridicule.

And then there are constraints on the language of origin of the name – in case it means something. And some people like to name their kids based on where they expect it to stand in class – this is one reason for the profusion of “Aa*”s in recent times.

Given that we know the gender of our child already, there is added pressure on us to come up with a name quickly – at least by the time she is born. With a name by the time of birth, she can start her life of an independently living Homo sapiens as a “person”, and won’t have to be an “it” for too long.

A friend with a two-year-old daughter recently remarked that “naming a girl shouldn’t be hard. So many abstract nouns in Sanskrit denoting qualities are female”. Another friend with a much younger daughter supplied us with “rejects” – names he had considered but ultimately didn’t use. Yet, it is of no avail, as we continue to be clueless in our nomenclature.

And it’s not just the first name that’s up for grabs – we need to decide what our daughter’s last name will be as well. The “default option” is to continue the patronymic (using father’s first name as last name), but the wife thinks “Karthik” makes for a lousy last name, so there is some debate on that front as well. Another option is to use my father’s given name (which is my last name) as my kid’s last name, but I find that simply weird.

Then there is the option of reviving the name of my ancestral village (which was part of my father’s name, but is not part of mine), but it sounds “too country” (translates to “village of cowherds”). Another option is to use the gotra (which is what the wife, or rather her parents, has used), but that will lend a casteist element to the name, which we’re not particularly comfortable with.

Yet another option is to dig into my paternal ancestry to look for suffixes that can be used as last names (this supplies “Rao”, “Shastri” and “Bhat” – and I know this because this is necessary information for performing death ceremonies), but that somehow that sounds too manufactured. Another common option is to use the place of birth, but “Bangalore” (where we expect our daughter to be born) just doesn’t sound right.

And all this is for the last name, which you might think must be straightforward! Imagine the amount of effort involved in coming up with the first name!

Whoever said nomenclature is an easy process!

Wahhabism versus Salafism

in collaboration with Narayan Ramachandran

During a meeting at the Takshashila office last week, senior advisor to Takshashila Narayan Ramachandran pointed out what he thought was a change in language over the years in describing Islamists. “In the aftermath of 9/11”, Narayan said, “the dominant word used was wahhabi. However, over the years its use has waned and has been instead replaced by salafi“. As good quants, we decided it would be best if we could back up this hypothesis with data before trying to understand the shift.

Now, not-so-recently, Google started this service called “google trends” which gives a measure of the popularity of a particular word or phrase over the years, and allows us to compare the usage of various phrases. We used Google Trends to compare the usage of Wahhabi and Salafi and found this:

This graph clearly shows that by 2004 the word “Wahhabi” was already out of fashion and “Salafi” was much more widely used.

If you look at only the US, however, the situation is different. Though there was significant fluctuation, till about 2006, the usage of Wahhabi and Salafi was comparable. Then from 2006-07 onwards, the usage of “Salafi” pulled away much ahead of that of Wahhabi, and it has remained that way, in accordance with worldwide trends.

It would be interesting to analyze, however, the reasons for this shift in nomenclature.

Update
Pavan Srinath weighs in that “Wahhabi” can also be spelt as “Wahabi”. And that spelling is actually on the upswing:
http://www.google.com/trends/explore?hl=en#q=wahabi%2C%20wahhabi%2C%20salafi&cmpt=q

In the US, though, both Wahhabi and Wahabi are on the decline:
http://www.google.com/trends/explore?hl=en#q=wahabi,+wahhabi,+salafi&cmpt=q&geo=US

So it appears that what is on the decline is the spelling “Wahhabi” more than the word itself.

NED Open

Happened today in three places. Chennai went in the morning, Bombay early in the afternoon and here in Bangalore in the evening. As part of the introduction to the finls we had written “if you are satisfied with the questions kindly let us know. If not, write to us in civil language and we will look into it”. I would encourage you to use the comments thread on this post to do the same.

Some personal comments at the end of it:

  • It’s insanely tiring for a single quizmaster to do a quiz this long (72 questions + LVC in finals). I can hardly talk right now and was shouting myself hoarse towards the end of the quiz (and as if it wasn’t bad enough, there was a tiebreaker to be conducted)
  • 72 questions plus a LVC is way to long for finals. True to the nomenclature of the quiz, I noticed several teams and part of the audience put NED towards the end. That it was late in the evening did matter i think. But again thinking about it, isn’t it fair that people put NED at the NED quiz?
  • One art I need to become better at is in terms of dividing points between teams in cases of partial answers. But then the problem there is however you do it, some team is bound to crib
  • Given it was such a long quiz, I was quite low on energy towards the end so probably did a worse job of point distribution, funda explanation etc. than I could have done
  • One needs to recognize that the concept of the LVC has been designed with an intention to irritate, and so some teams are bound to get pissed with it. As long as the audience enjoys you are good
  • One mistake I did (and I did this several times) was to continue wiht a question even after one team had given a “good enough” answer, and then finally give points tothe team that had originally given the “good enough” answer. This both wasted time as well as pissed people off
  • At the end of the quiz i was feeling so damn tired that all I wanted to do wsa to go to Dewar’s wine shop on St Marks Road and buy myself a bottle of Amrut Fusion and finish it off. But then, NED happened.