Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Call You Names

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2004

Doug had his first major argument with a friend a few days ago. He didn’t want to play “Army” anymore, because he usually ended up getting hurt. His friend called him a poor sport for refusing to play; the argument escalated until Doug was crying, and then his friend called him a crybaby.

Later, my wife and I talked with him about how to handle it when people called him names. Adam was listening, and broke in: “Why is Doug sad that [his friend] called him names?”

“Because name-calling isn’t nice,” his mom explained.

“Why is name-calling not nice?,” Adam asked. “I call names: Mommy, Daddy, Doug…”

Wow, that’s so literal I’m surprised it never occurred to me! It just goes to show, once again, that there’s only so much of the meaning of a compound word that you can predict from its components. Name-calling could have meant calling out people’s names, maybe to take attendance. Or, as Adam thought, it could have meant calling people by their names. But it just so happens to have acquired the more specific meaning of calling people by names other than their own, and not good names either. David Mortensen at It’s Ablaut Time writes about another good example of this with the historical linguists’ term sound change. And I’ve made similar points here and here.

Anyway, we tried to clear up Adam’s confusion. But I tell you what, it’s hard to explain why name-calling is so hurtful while trying not to taint your kid’s vocabulary. “You wouldn’t like it if someone called you a …, uh, something that wasn’t your name.” I guess we’ll just have to wait for someone to call him names.


One Response to “I Call You Names”

  1. very interesting insight

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