The Naming of Things

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That’s a pretty clever name, right?  Squid Vicious.  I thought of it entirely independently.  I got really excited, because it hit me in just the perfect way – clever, catchy, irreverent.  I was going to assume the mantle of Squid Vicious and have it become my internet avatar.  I was going to write a whimsical novel about undersea creatures overcoming their differences to form the world’s first All-Aquatic punk band.  The only problem?  Turns about about 1,000 other people thought of it before me.  Such is life in the modern era.  But it got me thinking about names.

What’s in a name?  On the surface, nothing.  The flotsam and jetsam of our lives latches on to names like barnacles to a hull (I’ve really got a whole nautical theme going today, huh?), giving them meaning.  But it’s a transitory meaning.  Would my life really be that different if my name were Dexter instead of Indy?  Probably not.  Would my life really be that different if instead I was named Lord Blackskull Burnface?  More likely, but I’d still be me.

But even though it’s a highly subjective affair, names are interesting, because what we choose to call things matters.  We choose.  We manufacture that meaning from almost nothing.

When it comes to pop culture, names certainly have an almost magical power, able to evoke feelings and memories with just a few words.  And what about the 2nd level names?  Stuff like a character name, the name of a TV show, the title of a book – that stuff stands out.  But what about the little things?  The meta-names that aren’t even really part of the fictional world?  The title of an episode, the name of a certain video game level, or the title of a certain chapter?  They can be almost a throwaway, or they can really, absolutely floor you.  This article is about the second kind.

TV episode titles

Episode titles are a funny thing.  Some shows have a gimmick (Friends with “The One Where…”, Scrubs with “My X.”  Some titles are straightforward and literal, telling you what the episode is about.  And some come at it a bit more slantwise, telling you something about how the episode feels, about its character, in just a few words, and those are the ones I love.

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“Islanded in a Stream of Stars,” Battlestar Galactica – Very evocative with the juxtaposition of the sailing ship/space ship imagery.

“The Crackpots and These Women,” The West Wing – Almost a non sequitur, but for Sorkin, when you think about the speech that includes this phrase, comes startling close to his baffling, frustrating, almost-but-not-quite relationship with female characters.  “These women…” soft, wistful shake of the head.  Love ’em, don’t quite get ’em, always trying, always frustrated.

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“In the Pale Moonlight,” Deep Space Nine – If there was ever an episode title that perfectly encapsulated how devoted DS9 was to embracing the very non-Trek concept of grey morality, this is it.  Doesn’t hurt that it’s a killer episode.

“Black Eyes and Broken Hearts,” Friday Night Lights – Has such a nice cadence, almost lyrical.  Highlights the racial tension that permeates the episode.

“Motherboy XXX,” Arrested Development – Because with a title like that, and with all the vaguely incestuous themes in the show, you freaking knew you were in for something memorable.  And you weren’t wrong.

“Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – They usually do great work making the titles part of the episode itself in a funny way, but this one just nailed it, comic timing and everything, which is tough considering the punchline is text in a live-action TV show.

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“Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Mad Men – Great levels, here.  Yes, it’s the line that someone says to Lane as they plot the ransacking of Sterling Cooper and the rise of SCDP like a phoenix from the ashes, but it’s also a more general kind of line – ‘have a seat, we’ve got important news’, that permeates the episode, like the heartbreaking scene where Don and Betty tell their kids they’re getting a divorce.

Book chapter titles

Now these can be all over the place.  Some authors go for the bare minimum and just number their chapters.  Some go for the one-word place descriptors (Paris, Alabama, London…).  And some – the ones we’re interested in for the purposes of this article – try for that magical combination of words that sums up the chapter.   A few examples…

“The Lesser Sadness,” The Wheel of Time – One of those phrases that’s just evocative on its own without even understanding the context (in this case, a victory in war, because it’s better than losing, but it’s never good.)

“Lyra and Her Death,” The Amber Spyglass – There’s something innocent and terrible and charming and beautiful and awful about a chapter title like that, which is good because it prepares you for the emotional devastation that comes at the end, which is all these things and more.

“Snow, Melting Against Skin,” Let the Right One In – That comma is beautiful and does a bunch of work.  Do you see why?

Video game mission titles

It’s the rare video game mission title that really captures the imagination.  Usually you don’t even pay attention to them.  But if they’re presented in the right way…

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…And The Horse You Rode In On

… they can be quite cool.  They can also be wistful and sad, like Mass Effect‘s “Old, Unhappy Far Off-Things.”

It’s a personal thing, really, what speaks to you name-wise.  Any special ones from the peanut gallery?

  • Lucas Tetrault

    For someone such as myself and the mass amounts of binge watching I take on … the title of an episode on TV always speaks to me. I love that you brought attention to this and I hope more series take up this practice. (for example, House of Cards could have had some amazing titles to their episodes but they just called them ‘Chapter 1’ etc. … which was bland and not near as interesting or foretelling)

    • Indy Z

      That’s a great point… it bugs me when great shows or books don’t take the time to do this. Like 5 years ago I stumbled onto a web site that made up chapter titles for famous and good books that didn’t have them, like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Sun Also Rises. Kind of wish I could find that again, it was a cool idea.