What's in a name?

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What's in a name? Take socialism.

When I see how opinion leaders all agree the NDP should erase it from party documents, I start thinking they should keep it. Anything that irritates so many sententious people must have a secret ingredient.

The word itself is malleable. It doesn't carry specific historical baggage like communism, Stalinism or fascism. It's more like newspaper, which used to have a lot to do with news and paper. Now it's harder to figure out what's news and it isn't always paper. Newspapers are often out there in the ether, another word that used to mean something else.

So instead of dropping the word and replacing it with a clunky, equally unclear term like social democracy, just keep it and switch the meaning. Use it to reflect something current, that needs a name.

Like those Tim Hudak-Dalton McGuinty ad-offs during the Stanley Cup. Provincial Conservative leader Hudak calls mean old man McGuinty the Tax Man, who's going to steal your money, take it from you -- singular, not plural. So vote for me and keep yer damn money. McGuinty, in a soothing voice, says here in Ontario we do things together, we help each other. He stresses the social aspect, though it wouldn't be quite right to call it socialism. Maybe social-ism. In that case Hudak would be the voice of Selfism, or Me-ism. But then McGuinty could be speaking for Us-ism. I'd actually enjoy an election between the Me-ists and the Us-ists. Okay, scrap socialism.

Another naming tizzy whirls around the city hall proposal to let companies or rich people put their names on public spaces like subway stations and parks if they pay enough. Silly me, I thought we already had that. It's called advertising. We also currently have public venues named the Rogers Centre, the Air Canada Centre and Roy Thomson Hall, that replaced broader titles like SkyDome, Maple Leaf Gardens and Massey Hall. (Whoops, the last doesn't quite work.) It's amazing that several Glenn Gould recital halls survive, for which he never paid, except in wondrous music and public instruction.

The pro-namers like Doug Ford say nobody cares and the money's good. The alternative would be raising taxes on the same corporations, which didn't use to be unspeakable. So you can see why they prefer buying name space: They get both praise and advertising. Maybe those of us who can only afford taxes should just start demanding our names on the potholes we account for.

But we've always had a problem with public space names; Toronto's streets were named after our imperial masters and owners. We travel along King, Queen and Victoria. Not to mention British politicians and warhorses from the Napoleonic era: Yonge, Bathurst, Dundas, Wellington. I don't know how Toronto, Ontario and Canada slipped through but I'm grateful.

Those street and place names used to bother me more. I thought they trained us to be deferential to wealth and power, here or abroad. But that might have been overstated. Writers tend to give words too much importance.

The late, great Pierre Berton commented, about 50 years ago, in his Toronto Star column, on the great debate over whether we deserved a distinct Canadian flag or should stick with Britain's Union Jack. That argument raged and raged. He said it didn't interest him. When we were grown enough and proud enough, we'd get our flag. Then one day we were and we did.

It seems to me this holds generally. People experience a reality; the words and symbols follow. (There must have been something in the air that led to "socialism.") Right now there's an unusual, almost global experience of anger over injustice and inequality. It springs from the bailouts of the superrich in 2008 and their subsequent greed and ingratitude. It generates terms like Spain's indignados or Greece's aganaktismeni. More reality will generate more vocab. As the guy in Field of Dreams might have said: Build it and they will name.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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