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Study Questions: The Power of Names

Open and complete one of the free-writing exercises below (to be assigned by your instructor). After, when prompted by your instructor, gather into small groups (groups of 4, but no larger), and discuss the following. Ask someone in your group to write down your answers to present to the class later.


  • Warfarin
  • Vinblastine
  • Pancuronium
  • Incivek
  • Adcetris
  • Yervoy
  • Viibryd
  • Zytiga
  • Xgeva

1. In “Why Are Drugs Getting Such Weird Brand Names?” journalist Luke Timmerman (Xconomy 9 May 2011) states, “There’s a reason so many drug names look so weird. A good drug name is supposed to check lots of boxes. It should be easy for doctors to spell accurately when they scribble it down on a prescription pad. It should be memorable. It should be used in every country around the world without triggering some cultural confusion or sensitivity. It ought to be consistent with the science or clinical application that distinguished the product through years of development, yet the brand name shouldn’t be so geeky that it’s obtuse for patients. Ideally, you’d want it to trigger some relevant connection to your product.” At right are a list of those names. Discuss what connections you make with these names and why.

2. A “euphemism” is a name or term that sounds more pleasant than the thing it actually is (e.g., “bath tissue” instead of “toilet paper.” “Dysphemism” is the opposite: a name or word that sounds less pleasant than the thing it references (e.g.., “coffin nail” instead of “cigarette”). As with euphemisms and dysphemisms, some words just sound better or worse than their definitions: “noisome” is a pretty word that describes a putrid stench; “pulchritude” is an ugly word that means “beauty”; “crepuscular” sounds disgusting but actually refers to the delicate traits of twilight; “fimicolous” sounds playful but actually means to reside on a dung heap; and so on. What are some other words that sound prettier or uglier than their definitions? Using suggestions from everyone in your group, make a list of five.

3. Adam Alter writes, “people prefer politicians with simpler names—and lawyers in American firms with fluent names rise up the legal hierarchy to partnership more quickly than their non-fluently named colleagues. (The result persisted even when we focused on Anglo-American names, so it doesn’t simply boil down to xenophobic prejudice.)” Below is a list of names, some shorter and/or simpler to pronounce than others. Match each of the names in the left column to one (and only one) social identity in the right column. Be prepared to talk about WHY you made these choices. What associations did each name create for you? Which names were easier to trace to their social identities, and which social identities were easier to connect to a name?

Alvin Turkle factory foreman
Sandia Beth Marx Kindergarten teacher
Dirk Pfister defense attorney
Furaha Pepperwater porn star
Gus Schneider genetic researcher
Lester Split fashion designer
Wairimu Ojukwu vampire
Melisandre Dragas-Rothschild death metal guitarist
Skrog Jacuzzi salesperson
Debbie K. Foster military career officer

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Free-Write #1

When I'm introduced by name to someone for the first time, some will say, "You don't look like a "Karl," while others will confidently say, "I could have guessed that was your name." It's a common practice to assume what name someone should or shouldn't have. But, why?! Should our names really define us to that extent? Are we even aware how much our names prejudice others, and how much we respond to those prejudices and become the identities they assume of us? Are we colonized by other people's assumptions about us, all based on whether our names suit us?

Free-write for 10 minutes by completing the following:

I do/don't look like a [insert your first name here].
Free-Write #2

Complete this free-writing task before gathering for group discussions.

In the Grimm’s fairytale, “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller’s daughter gets the upper hand over a goblin by finding out his real name. Tales like this are called “true name” stories, wherein knowing a secret name gives one the supernatural power of making, unmaking, or control over someone’s destiny. In many of these stories, what’s meant by “secret” is, in fact, “sacred.” In modern times, our passwords frequently overlap these two ideas: they are, both, secret and identify something sacred. Choose one of your own passwords that holds power for you (of any kind) and free-write about it for 10 minutes. Think about why it’s sacred, and what that means. (If you currently don’t have a password like that, choose one that would hold that kind of power for you.)    

Note:  This exercise will not be shared with anyone else, so your password will not be revealed. If you prefer, you can omit any actual mention of your password as you free-write.

Last Updated: 09/05/2017


Karl J Sherlock
English / Creative Writing
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