If anyone out there has missed Mark Twain's masterpiece Eve's Diary, it's not too late. The fun of names and naming is a big part of Eve's (aka Samuel Clemens's) observations on how mankind learned to live in this world.
I looked up from my lunch table reading and saw a big yellow butterfly with black designs on its wings enjoying one of the Asiatic lilies just outside the window. For some reason, I noticed the thought that came immediately: "Tiger Swallowtail." This in turn made me think about the human compulsion to name and to know the name of just about everything.
We most likely begin this in early childhood as we're learning to talk. Names of people and things are the first words we learn. I guess there are some people who grow out of that preoccupation and become content to find out only what's necessary for their work or hobbies. Somehow I slipped into what a few have hinted is some kind of obsession. Thinking about it, I realize that I'm frustrated if I can't find out the name of a shrub I don't recognize, or a new weed. We spent a year in England, and I think it was less than a week before I bought a field guide to birds of Europe. There's real pleasure in knowing that the mushrooms and ferns I learned as a child I can recognize in England or Italy or France or Germany, where I've been, but I could note them anywhere above the equator. That's half the world of two categories I don't have to research!
If my father ever used a generic term for something he referred to, (gismo, thingamajig) I never heard him do it. His mind was as organized as his workshop, with everything in its place and properly labeled. Even before I married an engineer I'd been taught the difference between a socket wrench and an adjustable wrench, I knew the difference between an Allen wrench, plain screwdriver and a Phillips head. Daddy wouldn't let me apply for a driver's license until I could recognize and name all the exposed parts of an internal combustion engine (c. 1950. Needless to say, I'd be lost today.) Dog breeds, horse breeds, cattle, birds--denizens of our woods of all sorts, tools, sailboat rigging, musical terminology, a good deal of biology and geology, and you name it--I'd had to learn their names before I was out of school. And now I'm stuck with it. "If you know the botanical name, it will be easy to find what you want in a nursery," Daddy said. Well, I confess, I try to use common names now, but when it comes to local names, I fall back on the genus if I know it. The trouble is nowadays, I'm lucky to remember either one. Still, I did remember the name of that beautiful common butterfly (whose genus and species I never had to learn).
If it's a beautiful bird song, why should I care which chorister is singing it? I keep wondering if it's just early conditioning, or if I'm somewhat like Adam in Twain's story, who seems to feel a sense of power when he decides to bestow a name, or if there's some acquisitive gene involved. I admit to a love of precision in use of the language, but do you really need to point out the difference between a pine tree and a juniper?