How do things get their names? For instance, why are Starbucks coffee shops called Starbucks? Was there a Mr Starbuck? Well, yes there was, but he was a character in a book, in the novel Moby Dick. The founders of Starbucks named their coffee shops after him because he loved coffee.
Or what about the colours we paint our homes with; where do they get their names? From professional paint namers, of course! All of the names are carefully chosen to sell more paint. Barley White is supposed to conjure up the image of a warm summer’s day, with skylarks singing overhead and poppies bobbing gently on the breeze as we stroll through a field of harvest white barley. Love Note is supposed to remind us of the love letters we either sent, or received, on tinted lilac paper before the invention of mobile phones. Soft Stone is supposed to make us think of country cottages or dry stone walls. Tuscan Sunset is supposed to conjure up that romantic holiday in Italy. And Antique Map... Hang on a minute! Who chose Antique Map? Probably the same person who dared to name another colour Ancient Artefact. Don’t those names make us think of dusty old libraries and museums rather than sparkling new homes or cosy firesides?
And what Trenchcoat - which is actually a sort of camel colour? Doesn’t that remind us of soldiers floundering in mud? Well, maybe not. Maybe it takes us back to that oh so fashionable coat we owned in the Seventies. (Actually, I had two trench coats!) But talking about mud, surely the worst name for a colour has to be Muddy Puddle! Who chose that one? It makes me imagine some crazed paint boffin mixing all of the colours together to see what you get. I certainly wouldn’t want it on my wall.
Where do things get their names? What about zebras, for instance? Where does that name come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a Congolese word, though some people think it comes from a Latin word, equiferus, coined by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and meaning wild horse. But how do you get from equiferus to zebra? #Or what about duck billed platypus? The duck billed bit is easy. The platypus has a mouth like a duck’s bill. But where does platypus come from? Actually, that’s an easy one. It’s a scientific name derived from two Greek words, ‘platus’ meaning flat and ‘pous’ meaning foot. Apparently the duck-billed platypus has big feet too!Genesis Chapter 2 is a story designed to explain why things are the way they are. Why are cows called cows? Why are sheep called sheep? And so on. The answer given in Genesis is probably closer to the truth than we might care to imagine. While their wives were out toiling in the fields, or grinding corn, or cooking the dinner, a group of men sat round the fire and got down to the serious business of finding a name for everything! Whatever they chose to call every living creature, that became it’s name.
Of course, there’s a name for the business of naming - etymology, and to this day some lucky people make their living from naming things, like the people who name paints. Adam is a name. It means, ‘made from the earth’, and also ‘good looking’. To call someone Adam is to suggest that he might be a bit of a hunk, apparently. But it’s also a collective noun, meaning humankind or sometimes mankind, and a singular noun meaning ‘a man’. So Adam is a word with an intriguing range of meanings.
According to Genesis, what sets human beings apart from all other living things is their curiosity, their desire to investigate things, delve into their origin, find a name for them, identify them and classify them. There’s something a bit godlike about this capacity. All other creatures just get on with the business of living, but human beings have to sit down and ponder over the meaning of it all. And Genesis insists that it’s something which God positively encourages us to do. It’s a collaborative venture with him. For naming something is not just about putting it in the dictionary, it’s also a way of recording it for posterity and saying that it matters. In the whole of creation on our planet, only human beings keep a register of all the other living things and mark it with a cross when something becomes extinct, or with a highlighter pen when it’s endangered. And, of course, naming and recording things is only the first step towards protecting and looking after them, to sharing in God’s stewardship of creation.
How sad, then, that we often fall short - as a species - of that ideal. I saw a poster recently which said, ‘Human beings are the only species which believes there is a God, and the only species which behaves as though God doesn’t exist.’
So far, then, Adam could be male or female really - except for the well-known tendency for men to do all the sitting down jobs while women get on with the chores, which suggests that the etymologists were probably male. But then the story veers in an alarming direction, at least if you happen to be a feminist, for it tells us that the first woman was a variant form of the original male of the species. And, of course, it’s only a small step - though not actually a necessary one - from saying that men came first in creation to arguing that they have priority over women and can tell them what to do.How paradoxical then, that modern science should have turned the Genesis narrative on its head and proved that women came first, and being male is a variant of the original female form of the species. All of us begin life in the womb as female and then some of us take on male characteristics, and the first genuinely human being was a woman.
This unexpected turn of events reminds us that it is best not to make false assumptions about the superiority of any one human being over another. We’re all born equal under God and we have a shared responsibility to care for one another.
In our English translations, however, the name Woman, which Adam gave to his wife, certainly reinforces the Genesis version of events. Woman derives from the Anglo-Saxon word wiman, meaning ‘a man who is a woman’. It’s also closely related to another earlier Anglo-Saxon word, wifman, meaning ‘a man who is a wife’. And that’s clearly how Genesis conceives of women - they are derived from men, and subordinate to them, and intended to be their wives and helpmates. They’re mutant man, men who have become women or wives.God had noticed men were lonely, so the story goes, and not very well organised without a partner to help them. None of the other animals could do the job, so God created women to fill the vacant position. As the fridge magnet puts it, ‘Do you want to talk to the man in charge, or to the woman who knows what’s happening?’
Notice how this is the first marriage, and there are no registers, certificates, vows or ceremonies. A man simply leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, and they become one flesh. The word ‘clings’ is a rather odd expression. It suggests a drowning man clinging to his wife to keep afloat rather than finding a partner to help him through life’s ups and downs. But, on the other hand, the Contemporary English Version says only, that ‘a man...marries a woman, and the two of them become like one person’, which is far too lame. The Authorised Version says that a man shall ‘cleave unto his wife’, which is - I think - a much more robust idea.
To cleave to someone means to join yourself to them and be faithful to them. It carries much more the idea of two people becoming one flesh, almost as if they were stuck together, reinforcing one another. Using the word cleave makes the first half of the verse complement the second half in a way that the image of two people becoming more like one another, or clinging to one another simply fails to do.Dr Janet Reibstein is an academic from Exeter University. A few years ago she published a book, based on her research, which she called 'Best Kept Secret'. It was about one hundred happily married couples who had , in some cases, been together for as long as fifty years. One of the most interesting things she discovered was that, once people had been together for at least nine years, the longer they stayed together after that, the happier they become.That first nine years are the most important, she says, because that's the period when a couple move on from the most intense feelings of love for one another – when they're completely wrapped up in one another - into a phase of their relationship where they begin to give more energy to other things. It's also the time by which most couples have had children, if they're going to have them, and parenthood changes their relationship too. It takes commitment, and a certain amount of resilience, to get to year nine, but Dr Reibstein says it's worth persevering because couples who succeed in building an enduring relationship are happier, healthier and more successful - on average – than people who don't.
Dr Reibstein describes four ingredients of this kind of relationship: first, ring-fencing some time every so often just to be alone together; second, remembering to say 'thank-you'; third, making the effort to see life from the other person's point of view; and finally remembering to do things together which are fun. Doing the washing-up together is not enough. Dr Reibstein says that even the happiest couples will have bad spells – the for better for worse moments – but if they've made sure that their relationship includes those four basic ingredients they'll be able to cleave to one another through thick and thin.
The kind of relationship described in ‘Best Kept Secret’ is a far cry from the traditional interpretation of what Genesis means, with its hints of male dominance and superiority, but I think it’s the right interpretation of what it means for people to be true helpers and partners to one another. Two people becoming one flesh is not about one partner submitting to the other, it’s about two people seeing life from each other’s point of view and walking in each other’s shoes.