A noun is a noun is a noun

31 Jan 2016

CS1954283-02A-BIGI was at the Rochester Public Market the other day, and a little boy in a stroller pointed to some kind of vegetable and asked his mother, “What is that?,” and she answered, “I don’t know what it’s called, honey.”

Which, of course, was not the question.

Something’s name is not what it is; it’s only the pin through the butterfly. Or the bat. I think Bill Clinton had it about right. So did Gertrude Stein:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about what ever is the object about which he writes. And therefore and I say it again more and more one does not use nouns.

So what’s to be done? Stein suggested switching over to verbs and adverbs, but I think nouns are a challenge that needs to be taken head on.

There’s something of an adage in college writing that a student should never use the word “thing” in a paper. I’m starting to have my doubts. It feels more honest to tell them to use “thing” every time they need a noun. If that word begins to get tiresome, they can pick from a list of nouns coined by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad. (Twain is mocking the ostentatious use of foreign phrases in travel writing, but we can utilize them, nonetheless.)–


It’s too bad that mom didn’t have this list in her pocket when her kid pointed to what was clearly a beet.



One Response to “A noun is a noun is a noun”

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head there – the child’s question, especially if he’s young enough to be in a pushchair, is far beyond ‘tell me the agreed name of that vegetable, Mother’. It’s more ‘explain that thing to me, Mother – where does it fit in the universe we share? Do we like it? How do we use it?’

    And I guess, as small children do, he would have read, forensically, the mother’s attitude towards the vegetable in question in the way she answered his question. And aligned himself with that attitude, shutting beetroot out of his world, until he takes the proffered forkful of a friend’s delicious beetroot and feta salad in a cafe and wonders why he’d never eaten them before.

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