Harriet one of the Tom, Dick and Harriet Galapagos Island tortoises of Charles Darwin fame. (Creative Commons)

A famous person, who shall remain nameless, once asked, “What’s in a name?”

Nameless to Me

And It’s Not My Fault in a Margaritaville Sort of Way

When reading I have a quirk that most would call a flaw.[1] I pay little, or quite honestly no, attention to names. On balance, this is a curse, but occasionally a beautiful blessing emerges. First, the curse. Recently, while reading a particularly long Vox article about the economist Emily Oster, well into the second half of the article a person named Colander surfaced. Specifically, the passage reads, “But stripping out context and qualifiers is always one of the potential hazards of writing for a popular audience — it’s a trap many economists fall into, Colander, who studies the economics field, says.”

Immediately I wanted to know more about Colander and how she or he fits into the discussion of Emily Oster. So naturally, I began searching the earlier parts of the article for the first, hopefully more informative, citation but to no avail. Finally, exasperated, I did a computer search of the article for Colander, leading me to the article’s first mention of David Colander, which occurred almost three thousand words before the second reference! It read, ‘“She’s a wonderful data scientist,’ David Colander, an economist who studies the evolution of the profession over time, told Vox.” Now, I had a wee little bit more to go on. Wikipedia, a site that is never wrong so I’ve been told, filled in more gaps. Professor Colander is a distinguished economist at Middlebury College concentrating on, among other things, the economics profession itself. Progress is being made. However, this is another topic for another time. At this time, I want to complain about journalists aggravating my quirk until it festers into a curse.

Other than being a long, informative, interesting, and well written article on the economist Emily Oster, it is also, in many respects, typical journalism. I’m assuming that it’s drilled into journalists to only use the last name of a person already mentioned earlier in their article, but it sometimes drives this name-challenged reader to distraction. Especially, if the previous reference is about a day’s journey earlier in the article.

I view it as one of my reading curses, and in my mind, it’s not my fault. I wish the journalism profession could come up with a new way to handle this issue. However, editors, if they still exist, may stand in the way. Unfortunately, I believe it will remain my curse for the balance of my lifetime, making most references to people like Professor Colander nameless to me unless I undertake a Herculean effort to dig deeper.

Fortunately, it’s a curse I can live with, and sometimes it even becomes a blessing, bringing me to the second manifestation of my flaw. For me, the lucky fortunate transformation from flaw to blessing is best illustrated in my reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Both of these massive masterpieces are chocked full of, at least for me, unfamiliar Russian names. Being name-challenged, I simply floated above the names concentrating on the characters much as I imagine a surfer floating above the perfect wave. As a result, Tolstoy’s books became memorable, beautiful, and with the exception of Anna Karenina full of nameless, fully developed characters. Of course, Anna’s character was fully developed but she had a name inseparable from the book. If I had not been able to go with the characters while ignoring their names, I would never have read Tolstoy. That would have been my loss.

So, there you have it — my curse found mostly in journalism with an occasional blessing found mostly in great literature.

[1] Yes, of course, I probably have other quirks/flaws, but I can’t think of any right now. And no, I don’t consider a poor memory a flaw.

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Gary Wells

Gary Wells

Retired economist and newbie news satirist predominantly using raw beginners “haiku” that do little justice to this elegant Japanese poetry form.