The Power of Names

The New Yorker:

The German poet Christian Morgenstern once said that “all seagulls look as though their name were Emma.” Though Morgenstern was known for his nonsense poetry, there was truth in his suggestion that some linguistic labels are perfectly suited to the concepts they denote. “Dawdle” and “meander” sound as unhurried as the walking speeds they describe, and “awkward” and “gawky” sound as ungainly as the bodies they represent. When the Gestalt psychologist and fellow German Wolfgang Köhler read Morgenstern’s poem, in the nineteen-twenties, he was moved to suggest that words convey symbolic ideas beyond their meaning. To test the idea more carefully, he asked a group of respondents to decide which of the two shapes below was a maluma and which was a takete.

If you’re like the vast majority of Köhler’s respondents, you’re compelled by the idea that malumas are soft and rounded (like the shape on the left), whereas taketes are sharp and jagged (like that on the right). As Köhler showed, words carry hidden baggage that may play at least some role in shaping thought. What’s surprising, perhaps, is how profoundly a single word can shape material outcomes over time.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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