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The Need for a Rectification of Names

The present arbitrary ship naming system seems premised on Humpty Dumpty's contention that "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." What is required now is a "Rectification of Names" - the fundamental Confucian idea that language should always bear the same meaning, that the meaning of words ("Names") should be the same for everyone. That is, words should not mean one thing to older people and another thing to younger people, or that the intention of politicians' statements should be the same as the meaning heard by those listening. Confucius treated "rectifying names" as the key to good government:

Zilu said, 'The ruler of Wei awaits your taking on administration. What would be master's priority?'
The master replied, 'Certainly--rectifying names!' . . . . If names are not rectified then language will not flow. If language does not flow, then affairs cannot be completed. If affairs are not completed, ritual and music will not flourish. If ritual and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties will miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, people lack the wherewithal to control hand and foot. Hence a gentleman's words must be acceptable to vocalize and his language must be acceptable as action. A gentleman's language lacks anything that misses--period.(13:3)

Further Chinese elaborations of this doctrine include the prescription of Hsun Tzu written in the Third Century BC:

"Words that have a shallow basis, conduct that does not bear examining, schemes of ill repute _ the gentleman is careful how he approaches these."(Hsun Tzu, Basic Writing, translated by Burton Watson, 1963, p.156).

Absent a wholesale rectification of names, current building rates hold little promise for straightening out this mess any time soon, but a few points for attention seem unavoidable:

  • Assign only one type of name to a given class, and assign only that name to that class. The name of a ship should immediately and unambiguously disclose the class of the ship. While it may be too much to hope for the elegant British system in which all ships of a given class begin with the same letter, there should be at least some apparent relationship between what a ship is called and what it does.
  • Stop naming ships after living people. Prior to the CVN-70 Carl Vinson the Navy managed to get along just fine for nearly two centuries without naming ships for living individuals, an estimable tradition consistent with the "Dead Presidents" custom that only those who have departed this world may be honored by this world by having their likeness placed on money, stamps and other places of high public honor.
  • Ships should have inspirational names. Again, there is probably little hope that the US Navy can match the estimable Royal Navy in this regard [eg, HMS Swiftsure, HMS Revenge, HMS Conqueror, etc]. The launch of the HMS Dreadnought prompted one member of Congress to propose that the American Navy construct the "USS Skeered of Nothing." Those who go down to the sea in ships must take some comfort in the traditions embodied in the Reuben James or The Sullivans. It would seem rather more difficult to find courage in combat from the Bob Hope.

Fortunately, the Lord looks out for fools and the United States of America, and the present situation may at least be on the road to rectification, even if the journey has been vastly lengthened by recent irresponsibility. We seem well along the way towards establishing the precedent that submarines are named after states of the Union, that destroyers are named after distinguished Navy and Marine figures, that aircraft carriers are named for Presidents, and so forth. Within a few decades, perhaps with greater discipline than has been in evidence for the past few decades, the rectification of names will be completed.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 12-02-2012 18:51:10 ZULU