When we analyze mentor texts as closely as we do in this course, it can sometimes seem like we’re really squeezing that proverbial turnip. Getting hung up on a single word or a turn of phrase might seem at times like a trivial pursuit or of questionable value. None of you, of course, feel that way since you’re all English types, but there are many (your future students included) who will wonder if all this rhetorical analysis is really grounded in anything that matters.
The recent dust-up over the renaming of Mt. McKinley in Alaska illustrates, though, the power that one word (in this case, a name) can have. This piece from The New Yorker highlights some of the debate and also connects it to larger trends in our society, as we evolve and progress, to more closely consider the way historical names reflect legacies and what our responsibility is today to those names. I was especially drawn to this section:
The truth is that the obsession with word magic and names is a primitive one, inherently irrational. Names are notional. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—or as rancid, depending; a mountain by its older name is just as tall. Yet the desire to remedy the wrongs of the past by righting our nomenclature is a deep one, and it burns on. Word magic it may be, and no more than that, but we believe in magic, and we think in words.
We must always remember that our thoughts are formed by words and language, and so words and language influence the way we think. The limitations (and the possibilities) of language help to shape the limitations (and possibilities) of our thoughts. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision to return the name Denali to this famous mountain, the debate itself reveals the significance we attach to words.