Names, knowledge, and elitism

I tend to notice an elitism about Knowing Names. I start out by looking at a beautiful bird, or a pretty butterfly, or a lovely tree. I then look up to the person who confidently identifies it for me. A Bulbul! I am thrilled that I have this knowledge.

red-whiskered bulbul vs 100710 photo IMG_6372.jpg

Then, of course, I go on the next birding trip, and realize that “Bulbul” is not enough. Another expert informs me that it is the Red-whiskered Bulbul. I file this name away in my (admittedly leaky) memory.

After this, over several birding outings, I see many other kinds of Bulbul. The White-browed, the Red-vented, the Yellow-throated, the Ruby-throated…and so the list goes. I now go all scientific. I no longer refer to a Bulbul. I say, with hauteur, to the person next to me, who’s come his or her first birding trip: “Oh, yes, that’s a very common bird!”(It’s always important to beat the newbie down from the joy of enjoying the beauty of a bird by emphasizing that it’s a Very Common Bird.)”It’s the…Pycnonotus jocosus,” I add (if I remember the name…the experts do remember, of course, and add it, cutting my ego down to size every time.) For some reason, just saying “Pycnonotus jocosus” impresses the bejeesus out of the newbies. I am now an Experienced Birder (no matter that I may not know the name, let alone the scientific one, of the next bird we spot!). Should I not have added to the joy of the birder’s thrill by agreeing that it’s a beautiful bird, and letting him find out, later, that it is a “common” bird? Oh, no…I have to rain on his parade with my “knowledge”!

I now always go on about how the scientific names are the only correct way of identifying the bird. “Scientific names are full of knowledge,” I say glibly, and take the example of another bird, where the Latin name is easily translatable…and apt. I never refer to the “Pycnonotus jocosus” which I myself have trouble remembering. Nor do I take the example of scientific names which are downright esoteric, or unfathomable. My eager listeners hang on my every (learned) word.

This kind of “I know more than you” games are not restricted to birding…indeed, every form of human endeavour and knowlege has the Gods of the Id, who can Recite The Names and Spout The Jargon better than others, and are, therefore, reckoned to be The Experts. The person in the seat next to me in the Carnatic music concert is, in utterly blissful ignorance, enjoying the melody of what he is hearing. But I won’t let him in peace. To his happy question, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I don’t merely nod….I respond, “Oh, yes, Podalangapriya is such a rare but beautiful ragam! I remember, in 1905, Mahakrishnapuram Rama Iyengar sang an RTP (such is the erudite way of referring to Ragam, Thaanam, Pallavi) in this ragam, set to khanda triputa taalam!” The poor neighbour retires in abashed awe.

I don’t dispute that scientific names, and precise id’s are required. But they are not required by everyone. My “ignorant” neighbour in the concert is enjoying the music as much as I am..in fact, probably more than I am, as I try to resolve in my own mind whether the ragam is, indeed, Podalangapriya, or its relative in the same Melakarta, Kathrikeswari. If I want to make a study of the science underlying what I enjoy, that’s fine. But let it not be touted as a superior achievement, to be aspired to by one and all.

here

is a photograph, with Adesh’s view of scientific names, and my response to him.

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