The Nomenclature of a Toddler by Susanna Crossman

From her carpet:

“Mummy, maman” my daughter, Jeanne, calls me. Crouched in the corner of my studio, she draws. Strewn over her pink circle of carpet are her “things”: scraps of paper, coloring books and felt-tip pens. Lifting her head from her paper, she says, “Maman”. “Mummy”, Three-year-old Jeanne continues in English, “I give you a secret.” “OK”, I lift my head from my keyboard. She sidles up to my chair, places her small mouth next to my ear. “You have to do a line,” she whispers, “All day, and the line don’t stop. You don’t stop the line.” Jeanne concludes, “It’s a secret.” She hands me a strip of paper on which she has drawn a purple line. The line stretches from one end of the paper to the other.

She has baptized a ‘secret’ both a whispered word and this purple line drawn on this piece of paper. “Thanks” I answer. Jeanne returns to her drawing, and I to my writing. We both continue making lines.


Her nomenclature, some examples:

My bi-lingual daughter’s nomenclature is slowly being built. Constructed like a linguistic cathedral, there are invented flying buttresses, naves and arches, different categories in her taxonomy. Jeanne has a folk taxonomy, a vernacular naming system, which describes her natural surroundings. It can be contrasted with a scientific nomenclature because it is not universal. Jeanne is the only surviving witness, a unis testis, who can fully understand her system. In her system are:

Time: time is divided into “after sleep”, “in a long, long time” and it’s antonym, the French word, “Riquiqui”, meaning very small. When Jeanne says, “Riquiqui” she holds up one hand and indicates the tiny gap between her finger and her thumb. The word “Riquiqui” is always accompanied by this gesture, and a demand that things happen fast.

Holiday: “holiday” is a place where we take suitcases, or “valises”. Holiday is also a synonym for Erquy. Erquy is a seaside town where the two of us go, so that I can write. Erquy is what Jeanne calls, “que-toute-les-deux”. My daughter insists, Erquy means only the two of us.

Space and objects: “outside” is the garden, and “inside” is how Jeanne likes eating a banana, “inside” means it remains in its skin. The same appellation describes having a drink ”inside” a bottle, rather than it being poured into a cup. This is also what is known as a ”special treat” which means it is rare, and exceptional. The “outside” of the garden also only happens when it doesn’t rain.

An action: “A running” is what Jeanne requests, every night, just before bedtime. Leaving her room, and crossing a corridor, she walks to the furthest wall of our bedroom. Jeanne shouts, “Are you ready, are you ready?” “Yes” I answer, “yes”. Then, she runs and runs across carpet and floorboards. Her feet cross over the thresholds of doors. She runs and runs, as fast as she can. Finally, she lands with a thud, in my arms. Chest to chest, I hug her tight, and we settle together, inside the end of “the running.”


Her age:

Jeanne is my third daughter. Her elder sisters are fourteen and ten. In English, Jeanne is a toddler, between baby and child. To toddle is to wobble.  In French, they call this period: l’âge du non, the ‘non’ as a name, a negation. It is the beginning of a process of autonomy, the ability to verbally express desires. In the C12th human life was divided into seven stages, derived from astrology, located in the stars. According to this classification, my daughter is rising from the infans (in a cot) into puer (the child). Jeanne is located between the moon and the planet Mercury.



Learning to name is a phase of human development. Words distinguish the objects of our experience: people, places, emotions and hurricanes, static objects and those that turn. Each of my daughters named with a singular style. Jeanne is prone to whispering her “secrets” in our ears. At two, my middle-daughter, when asked for a “special smile” would make a particular, radiating grin. At the same age, my eldest daughter described all meat as “nap”.

These words organized their universes, created linguistic order, a nomenclature. Nomenclature in Latin is the ‘calling of names’, after the office of the Roman steward who announced visitors and prompted forgetful politicians to remember names.


The Mummys:

From her pink carpet, Jeanne calls me: “Mummy, maman.” The root of calare, is also to shout, and, Jeanne yells “Maman, maman.” I am both of these names, and turn to her, saying “Yes.” But, she answers, laughing “No. I was talking a fake mummy, inside my head. It is a game.”

I picture all these mummys, inside Jeanne’s head, and wonder how we co-exist. There are at least three of us: mummy, maman and all the imaginary mothers.


Five Paragraphs About Nomenclatures:

1- Plato believed that naming things correctly was “not the trivial work of chance persons, but rather the task of the community”. The Stoics distinguished between names that “signify a quality proper to an individual” and appellations “common to a genus.” In the 1700’s thinkers, such as Leibniz, attempted to distinguish between proper and common nouns. In the C20th theorists, such as Foucault and Bourdieu, stressed the violence in the “state monopolies of legitimate naming” to the detriment to name-givers using un-official languages and dialects.

2- Publication of the tenth edition of the Système Naturae, 1758, marked the beginning of zoological nomenclatures. Carl Linnaeus’s taxonomy established three Kingdoms: Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. Each Kingdom was divided into further classes. For example, in the animal Kingdom were: mamallia (mammals), aves (birds), amphibia (amphibians and reptiles), pisces (fish), insect (arthropods) and vermes (worms, molluscs etc).

Classifying came to Linnaeus, one day, as he observed a horse skeleton at the side of a road, he remarked: “If I only knew how many teeth and of what kind every animal had, how many teats and where they were placed, I should perhaps be able to work out a perfectly natural system for the arrangement of all quadrupeds.” Linnaeus named over 7700 species of animals and planets. He is frequently quoted to have said: “God created, Linnaeus organized”.

3- In 2005, Saburo Yokoyama and Shuho Kirino published a photographic nomenclature of 1000 Japanese camellias and sasanquas. Sasanquas are also called “the flower of autumn sun.” Their book contains an interesting thought, by the President of the Japanese Camellia Society, Dr. Kaoru Hagiya, about why Japanese people prefer single flowers while Westerners prefer double formal flowers: ”The fundamental difference is in that the Westerners treat flowers as kinds of decorations, while Japanese take flowers as the symbols of nature”.

4 -In 1961, in the preface the 1st edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, J. Chester Bradley writes,

“Like all language, zoological nomenclature reflects the history of those who have produced it, and is the result of varying and conflicting practices. Some of our nomenclatural usage has been the result of ignorance, of vanity, obstinate insistence on following individual predilections, much, like that of language in general, of national customs, prides, and prejudices.

Ordinary languages grow spontaneously in innumerable directions; but biological nomenclature has to be an exact tool that will convey a precise meaning for persons in all generations”.

5- Jeanne’s great-great-great-great-great uncle was Luke Howard, an inspired scientist and Quaker, world-famous for naming the clouds. Inspired by the Linnaean system, Luke Howard invented terms to name transitional forms in nature – cirrus, cumulus, stratus, cirrostratus, cirrocumulus, cumulostratus, and nimbus. A friend of Goethe and Constable, they named Luke Howard, The Father of Meteorology. He wrote, “Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere; they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person’s mind or body.”


The Confounding Golden Trevor:

When she talks, Jeanne’s words, like the naming of the three mummy’s, cannot be organized like chemical compounds, plants or clouds, indicating genus. Her language cannot be an exact tool to be used around the world. Her words and names are confounded and mixed. Sitting on her pink circle of carpet, in my studio, Jeanne says:

“What is your name? This one is my father. Huh huh, be a good girl. Let it go! How many crowns are there? How many flowers are there? How many snowflakes are there? One, no. There are/is one. No. There is one. No. (She makes a sound: Grrhhhh. Arrgghh. Grghhhh). I am drawing. That is a snowman. A dog. Wow, that snowman is so good. It looks a dinosaur and it getting on my nerves. It doesn’t draw yet. But how many are there? One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. (She shouts) NO! One. Two. Three. Four Five. Six. Seven. I prefer three. Oh no. Un. Un, après, trois. Pour nous. (She sings) Mummy I am doing claws. Like a special day, eating a cake. So delicious. Chocolate. Chewing-gum. But it is spicy. Ca pique. It burns my tongue. I might need a bib. It is hiding. Mummy can you give me a picture to draw? What is your name?

This confounding catalogue names the brilliant enargeia of Jeanne’s existence, a constellation of vivid and tangible meanings. In this newborn nomenclature, appellations are mysterious. Poetic and contained. It is a rhizomatic classification of life, apprehending multiplicities. Criss-crossing. Mistaken. Fluctuating. All the mummys are different to her, as mothers are each of us.

Yet, her anti-nomenclature is a necessary underside to shared, universal scientific language. It is perhaps the night to the sun. In this linguistic darkness we hear and feel, but we cannot see. Unique naming is a puzzle, a lyrical riddle tucked between the lines. Multiple meanings, spoken in various tongues and languages, fill the glorious Babel tower. They name each human mystery.

From her pink circle, my daughter calls me, “Mummy, Maman.” Once more, Jeanne returns to my side, her small lips by my ear, whispering, “What is Golden Trevor?” “Golden Trevor?” I ask, and then I correct her saying, “Oh you mean golden treasure”. She looks at me, crossly, and insists, “No Golden Trevor. What is Golden Trevor?” Trying to find a reference point in her nomenclature, I tell her, “Golden treasure is what you find inside a pirate ship. Like necklaces, rings and crowns. Treasure is a very precious, rare, and beautiful thing”. Jeanne walks away and returns to her carpet, talking to herself, she says, “Yes. Golden Trevor, Golden Trevor is like a secret.” I look at the scrap of paper and her purple line. At my desk, I return to my writing. I write – Golden Trevor is this secret that I am whispering in your ear. It is called a purple line. It is a name. An impossibly beautiful treasure.


Susanna Crossman


Susanna Crossman is a bi-lingual British writer based in France. Co-author of the French novel, L’Hôpital, Le dessous des Cartes (LEH), she has recent/upcoming work in print and online in 3:AM Magazine, Thousand, The Creative Review, Litro, RIC Journal, ZenoPress, Visual Verse and elsewhere. A member of the Dangerous Women project, her writing has been short-listed for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. She regularly collaborates on international hybrid projects with artists, filmmakers and musicians. Currently she is completing a film project about Camille Claudel with French director Gilles Blanchard. She is represented by Craig Literary, NY. More at:  @crossmansusanna

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