Why Do We Name Our Machines?

After recent news of a train receiving a less than dignified name, Automologist LING wonders why we are compelled to name inanimate machines in the first place. 

After a public poll to select a name for one of its trains, the Swedish transport company MTR Express has accepted the choice of the majority. Trainy McTrainface will now ply the route between Stockholm and Gothenburg. The Swedes do have a sense of humour.

Image credit: Wikipedia

It might even be some sort of retaliation on behalf of their British friends, after they were snubbed in 2016 when the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council ran a campaign to name its £200 million research ship and 124,000 members of the British public chose Boaty McBoatface, a decision that was overruled by the council in favour of RRS Sir David Attenborough. I cannot decide which I like better: Boaty McBoatface, which would have given me such glee, or Sir David, the eponymous man who taught me so much about the natural world and whose name would lend an air of dignity to the research vessel.

Okay, I see why this boat needed a more dignified name. 

image credit: Rolls-Royce

This got me to wondering why people feel a need to name their machines. Clearly, in the case of Trainy McTrainface and Boaty McBoatface, netizens chose the names of the machines because it was a great big joke in the online world, and though that is not necessarily a bad thing, the machines do have to live with the names for the rest of its life, just like children with parents who think they are so clever. (In 2012, 146 baby girls were named Khaleesi. Good luck explaining their name to them when they are grown up and GoT is already out of style.)

The great Elon Musk also has hyped-up names for his boring machines. (Boring as in “to drill a hole” to make a tunnel, not “uninteresting”.) Amongst his many companies, Musk owns a boring company called The Boring Company, and the names of his machines are decidedly more interesting than the company’s—they take their names from poems and plays. The first machine is called Godot, from the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot. The two main characters spend the entire play waiting wearily for a man named Godot who never shows up, an allusion to the speed of the boring machine. That’s Musk’s humour for you. The second machine got its name just a couple of days ago—Line-Storm—from a Robert Frost poem about persevering in love; perhaps an analogy for the machine’s perseverance in moving forward through soil and hard rock. Ah, such a romantic.

image credit: davesvanlife, via Business Insider

Our very own Rapid KL also thought they would get creative and for a time I would see the same video being replayed on the TV screen inside the trains, narrated by one of the trains. “I’m Amy. I am the eldest of 50 pretty sisters,” the narration went, as visuals of the polished new trains flashed on the screen. “I was born in Zuzhou…Check out my gorgeous looks and my sexy curves…” I kid you not.

I suppose Rapid KL felt a need to give the trains human names, so that Malaysian riders would treat it with respect, and not litter or vandalise or misuse it. Didn’t help though: Read also Rapid KL Shames Misbehaving Commuters.  

In an OED blog post, Peter McClure wrote: “The use of personal names to denote useful man-made objects is partly an extension of the sense ‘servant’ and is partly anthropomorphic.” So, could it be a subconscious power-craze that we have, fed by our ability to manipulate and control these machines? McClure also pointed out that powerful guns and machines are usually given female names, another interesting point to ponder, especially since the subject of female subjugation is hot in the news now (#metoo).

I, too, anthropomorphise my car, and have called my white-coloured compact car Legolas since the first day I drove it home. My fellow Automologist spent some time deciding on the name of his brand new Porsche Macan. (Read also Do You Name Your Car?) I don’t know, though, whether he talks to his car like I may or may not do (depending on whether anyone is watching). Maybe I’m a misanthrope and prefer the company of inanimate objects. Or maybe, and this is more probable, I’m just a sad person who has no friends.

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