In the News: By Any Other Name

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet


—Juliet, Romeo and Juliet II.ii (William Shakespeare)

Or would it? In a recent post on Science of Us, Melissa Dahl wrote about a recent column in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, who cited comments by Paul Silvia on writer’s block. Complex chain of citation notwithstanding, the idea being discussed is quite interesting. Here it is, in the words of Dahl:

“Naming something gives it object power,” Burkeman quotes Silvia as saying. “People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example.” It’s best, then, if you don’t dwell on or “diagnose” yourself with the problem; instead of calling it “writer’s block,” call it what it is, or rather, what it isn’t — “not writing.”

The same thing, I think, can be true of “stage fright,” “speech anxiety,” or “glossophobia.” It’s possible that by giving our (perfectly normal) feelings these scary sounding names, we’re giving them more power over us than they deserve. If we simply describe how we’re feeling, i.e., “a bit jittery before giving my speech,” we may be able to take away some of the power of our fear and more easily find ways to overcome it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the opposite could be true. Others have suggested that you can actually take away the power of your fears by naming them. In fact, there’s a whole genre of literature based on this concept, that when you know the true name of something, you can take away its power.

In The Science of Speaking, I explore yet another option: that perhaps we should give our feelings a positive name, such as “stage excitement” or “stage enthusiasm,” which explain the symptoms in a more inspiring way.

In the end, it really depends on what works best for you. If naming your fear is making you feel worse, by all means, call it something less serious. But if naming your fear makes you feel better, by all means, go ahead and name it. And if what works best for you is to give it a different name, then that’s the strategy that you should employ.

To bring it back to Juliet’s question, there’s probably something more to a name than she claims—but what really matters in the end is that we should call the rose by the name that makes it smell the sweetest.

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