May 24, 2010

Naming Our Gear

So, I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and came across this passage:

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter.

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, p. 217]

Firstly: a spear called Ron? What’s next? “And then Arthur put on his noble boots, Bob and Terry.”

Secondly: I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the tradition of giving weapons personal names, so frequently seen in chivalric romances and Norse sagas. Someday I’d like to do some actual research into the topic, but in the meantime I wonder what the state of this custom is today. Do soldiers name their weapons? I know of artillery pieces that have names, but I don’t know about rifles and sidearms.

On the civilian side, I know plenty of people who name their cars, and some who name their houses. Some musicians name their instruments (though it seems a honor accorded only to certain types of instruments — guitars, certainly, but pianos… less commonly). What else do we name?

Well, computers and “smart” electronics — usually because we’re asked to. Your iPod prompts you to give it a name (mine: “Trumpy,” after the alien in the movie Pod People of MST3K fame). For networking reasons, you have to give your computers names (mine: various Flannery O’Connor characters). So we might expect to see this trend continue even beyond devices that require you to register them with a name. Will we be naming our smart phones? How many people already refer to their devices by their “name,” rather than saying “my iPod” or “my laptop”? I don’t know any, myself, but I’m sure they’re out there.

Anyway, this might be yet another element that blends geek cultures. An old classmate of mine once critiqued another’s choice of network password — the name of an obscure Lord of the Rings character (and this was in the days before the movies) — by saying “Any hacker worth his salt will know a great deal about Tolkien.” It’s fascinating to me that there is this strange confluence of tech culture and medievalesque culture. Bestowing totemic names upon our most valuable tools is just one more example of that cross-over.

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