Apr 29, 2022
As a species, we’re obsessed with names. They’re one of the first labels we get as kids. We name and rename absolutely everything around us. And these names carry our histories, they can open and close our eyes to the world around us, and they drag the weight of expectation and even irony along with them. This week on Radiolab, we’ve got six stories all about names. Horse names, the names of diseases, names for the beginning, and names for the end. Listen to “Hello, My Name Is” on Radiolab, wherever you find podcasts.
Special thanks to Jim Wright, author of “The Real James Bond”, Tad Davis, Cole delCharco, Peter Frick-Wright, Alexa Rose Miller, Katherine De La Cruz, and Fahima Haque.
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The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
HELLO, MY NAME IS - FINAL WEB TRANSCRIPT
**Note: Italicized text indicates to the reader that the story is now in a flashback.**
LULU MILLER: Just rolling up into Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
LULU: Hey, this is Radiolab. I’m Lulu Miller.
LATIF NASSER: Hey, I’m Latif Nasser.
LULU: So, Latif, we are going to begin today—
LULU: I see a big gray water tower—
LULU: in the middle of barn country in Wisconsin.
LULU: We got some cheese to bring home to the family.
LULU: And I had gone out there-
LULU: Oh, I just overshot the fire department.
LULU: Because I wanted to go to a fire station.
LULU: Sun Prairie Fire Department.
LULU: Very excited.
LULU: Where I wanted to meet a very special firefighter.
LULU: Thank you for letting me come by. I really appreciate it.
LULU: He fought fires for over 30 years.
LES MCBURNEY: 31 years in the department, but I’ve been gone since 2018 and…
LULU: Saved countless lives.
LES MCBURNEY: I got on my hands knees and I crawled all the way up to her door. She was indeed trapped right in the doorway with a — in a wheelchair and…
LULU: And the reason I was there…
LES MCBURNEY: got her out to safety there…
LULU: To talk to him
LATIF: Besides him being a hero.
LULU: It wasn’t because he was a hero.
LATIF: Not because he’s a hero.
LULU: No. I was there because of his name.
LATIF: What’s his name?
LULU: This man who has valiantly risked his life in making there be less fire burning
LES MCBURNEY: Less burning, yes, yes, you could say that.
LULU: His name is
LULU: So without further ado, and what is your name?
LES MCBURNEY: My name is Les McBurney.
LULU: Les McBurney.
LULU: Yep. [Latif laughs]
LATIF: Oh, that’s just destiny. There’s no other— his name is Les McBurney.
LULU: Les McBurney. I don’t —Yes, when I first heard this, it literally just warmed my cold, little heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and chuckling to myself—texting people people, “Les McBurney. There's a fireman named Les McBurney. Les McBurney.” Like it just was bottomlessly joyful to me, and apparently, to many people on the internet. He was recently—a couple years back he was on TV for fighting a fire at 3 am and someone took a still of the TV shot where it was like Lieutenant Firefighter Les McBurney and it just became this huge meme.
JIMMY KIMMEL: We’re gonna start in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. This gentleman is-
LULU: Goes on Jimmy Kimmel
LES MCBURNEY: Les McBurney.
JIMMY KIMMEL: Les McBurney.
LATIF: Oh wow!
LUL: As a perfectly named human.
JIMMY KIMMEL: Les McBurney would also be a good name for a urologist. [audience groans]
LES MCBURNEY: Kind of fun. I mean, if just— you know, if that's my 15 seconds of fame. Okay, then that's that, you know, but there is a fire department in Texas that has a big, huge blow up mascot and they actually named it after me.
LULU: Wait what?
LES MCBURNEY: Yeah, I saw it on the internet.
LULU: What is it? What’s the mascot? Is it your face?
LES MCBURNEY:: No, it’s not my face. It’s just like a big, huge Smokey the Bear kind of thing. You know, big, huge blow up thing—
LULU: with a big mustache and a fire hat, blue eyes just like him.
LES MCBURNEY:: and they put “Les McBurney” on it.
LULU: That’s amazing.
LES MCBURNEY: Yeah, so I mean like I said, if it helps with fire prevention, if it helps anybody that’s what it’s all about.
LULU: But—you know— I drove nearly three hours to stand next to this guy.
LATIF: Yeah, why did you do that?
LULU: Because I think names have power. I don’t think that they are just static labels that we wear. I think they have the ability to shift what’s possible for us. To shift what we become in small but real ways and I wanted to talk to Les about that. I wanted to kind of go deep with how maybe his name influenced what he became.
LES MCBURNEY: Well—
LULU: So do you think it at any subtle, insidious effect on you becoming a firefighter?
LES MCBURNEY: No.
LULU: And he was like:
LES MCBURNEY: None at all.
LULU: Are there any other firefighters in your family?
LES MCBURNEY: I knew that was going to be a question. There isn’t. I was the first and only firefighter of any kind.
LULU: Do you think it’s just like you can’t see it? It’s your own name, it’s not a joke. It’s like become invisible to you?
LES MCBURNEY: Probably. Probably.
LULU: He actually like never noticed it.
LATIF: He never noticed it?
LULU: He never noticed it.
LES MCBURNEY: No.
LATIF: How is that even possible?
LULU: Did anyone ever like rib you about it?
LES MCBURNEY: Not a person.
LULU: He never got teased as a kid. No school counselor was ever like, “You know what you should do? Become a firefighter.” And even when he did become a firefighter…
LES MCBURNEY: It never got mentioned in probably 25 years.
LULU: Like the firefighters at the station?
LULU: Ok, did you notice the name before it went viral?
LULU: They never thought about it.
UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: No. No one put two and two together until that came out, and it was hilarious.
LULU: I mean, this other firefighter was like, “Oh, I noticed.”
UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: Yes, I did and I had no clue how nobody else had picked up on it yet.
LULU: I don’t know how they didn’t notice.
UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: Seriously, you guys didn’t notice his name is Les McBurney?
LES MCBURNEY: I still, I guess I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t honestly. Yeah, my name is Les McBurney and I was a firefighter. Ok, I mean, it just is what it is.
LULU: However, despite Les McBurney’s attempts to dowse my fire for the idea that names hold great power.
LN: I feel like it was inevitable that you would leave Les McBurney less aflame.
LULU: But today we are doing a whole show that delves into the power of names, stories where names do shape lives,
LATIF: Or change the way we think.
LULU: Stories of people fighting against names.
LATIF: Or having to reclaim a name.
LULU: And the potential power of remaining nameless. So hold onto your names, folks.
LATIF: Or let them go. Either way, here we go.
LATIF: Okay so let’s kick things off talking about names not of people but of things because obviously we'd love to run around and look at everything and name it.
LULU: We especially like to name things after ourselves. Ah look at this pretty river I shall call it the Hudson River said Henry Hudson.
LATIF: That was a very good Henry Hudson impression. But still you are right. It’s like a power move and even inside our body things are named after other people like it's like the fallopian tubes or like the Broca’s area of the brain..
LULU: Fallopian was a person?
LATIF: Hold on I’ll look it up..hold on hold on hold on…yes Gabriele Fallopio an Italian Catholic priest yeah 1523 to1562
LULU: Wow, oh man.
LATIF: Yeah and I mean it’s always a European white guy right
LULU: Yeah, like our most intimate parts are like colonized by these names.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah. That's of course a very colonial idea, the idea of claiming by naming, but I can't remember the last time that anyone named a cell or a body part after themselves or the person who discovered it.
LATIF: So that’s no Mukherjee elbow in the future.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: There will unfortunately be no Mukherjee elbow.
LATIF: I'm still gonna call it Mukherjee’s elbow from now on.
LATIF: So our next story comes from this guy, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: But I'm glad you chose the elbow, because I—the elbow is—elbow's very neutral territory.
LATIF: He's a professor of medicine at Columbia University and I ended up talking to him because our reporter Carolyn McCusker of very recent James Bond name fame, pulled me into the studio with him.
LATIF: Okay, Carolyn, you want to take it away?
CAROLYN MCCUSKER: Yeah. Sure.
CAROLYN: So I wanted to get Siddhartha on mic for the show because he talks about how in the 1800’s there was really no consensus at all for how to name diseases.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah, so in medicine, no one created a taxonomy. No one said, “This is the way we're gonna name things.” So it's a free for all.
CAROLYN: And so he kind of, he tells a story—which is kind of two stories—about this disease that got named and how the choice of naming totally changed how people imagine the disease.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah. So let's start on a March evening in 1845. There’s a Scottish physician - his name is Bennett.
CAROLYN: John Hughes Bennett.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: …and he's called in urgently to see a man who was dying mysteriously. The patient is a 28 year old man. He is a slate layer.
CAROLYN: A stone worker.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: And Bennett writes about this case, he says he's of dark complexion, unusually healthy…
CAROLYN: …except, he writes, that…
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: 20 months ago this patient was affected with a great listlessness on exertion.
CAROLYN: And over the next few months, he started getting really sick, with abdominal pains, and fevers, and …
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: ….these tumors are growing all over this man's body in his armpits, his groin, and his neck.
CAROLYN: So when this man shows up to his office…
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Bennett draws a drop of blood, and he finds that the blood is full of millions of white blood cells.
CAROLYN: Now the idea of cells was pretty much brand new back then, but for doctors at the time white blood cells basically just mean pus. And so when Bennett sees all of these white blood cells in the blood, he thinks, "Okay, that's pus. Which means that ..."
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: …that this man has an infection.
CAROLYN: And then he names the disease.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah, he gives it a name. He calls it a suppuration of blood. Suppuration means the formation of pus in the blood.
CAROLYN: And that case report and that name sort of set the stage for how a lot of doctors approach this mysterious disease.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: When you call something a suppuration of blood, you're saying - in a, in a hidden way, you're saying I know what the answer is - It's pus and if it's pus, then it must be infection.
LATIF: Like a hidden judgment about the cause of it?
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Exactly. It's a hidden judgment about the cause.
CAROLYN: And so as other patients were showing up with similar symptoms, and these explosions of white blood cells in their blood, doctors were looking for little bacteria or something to have caused this infection, but nobody was able to figure it out. And so they all kind of ended up right where Bennett was, just not knowing what to do for his patient.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah, so Bennett's patient, his disease accelerates and we know from Bennett’s case description that he dies very soon.
LATIF: Oh, wow.
CAROLYN: Which brings us to story number two. Some … months after Bennett saw his patient.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: In Berlin, there's a young medical student named Rudolf Virchow. And he also sees a patient.
CAROLYN: This time it’s a cook.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: It's, I think, a 50 year old woman.
CAROLYN: She started to have these nosebleeds, and a lot of the other same symptoms that Bennett's patient had. And Virchow, just like Bennett, takes a look at her blood.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: You know, he picks up a drop of blood, and sees again millions and millions of white blood cells.
CAROLYN: Now Virchow, unlike Bennett…
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Virchow is—is extremely young, far from an experienced physician.
CAROLYN: He’s fresh out of medical school, and Siddhartha says he was pretty distressed about what he was learning there.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: All these theories about the four humors, mysterious myasmas.
CAROLYN: He’s feeling like none of that stuff made any sense.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: You know, he writes this very beautiful letter back to his father. And he says true knowledge is only obtained by knowing what you don't know. And he says how much and how painfully do I feel the gaps in my knowledge?
CAROLYN: And so when Virchow goes to give the disease a name …
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: …he almost It's like a It's sort of - a sort of an act in the negative.
CAROLYN: …he’s like I'm not going to imply that I know anything about it. I'm just gonna say what I see.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: ... just what it looks like. And so he says - he first calls it weißes blut…
CAROLYN: …which is just German for white blood.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Just white blood.
CAROLYN: But in a later paper he goes on to translate that name into Greek to call the disease…
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: …leukemia.
LULU: Ooohh… I have heard of that.
CAROLYN: Yeah. I should say it would be another forty or fifty years before scientists pin down what we know today, which is that the disease is not an infection.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: This weißes blut is in fact a cancer of white blood cells.
CAROLYN: But Siddhartha's argument is that a name like "leukemia" that doesn't have an assumption baked in, it kind of allows your mind to wander and ...
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: …this is around the same time that people are finding cancers in the liver, they’re finding cancers in the stomach and the brain and other parts…
CAROLYN: So what's really genius about Virchow's name is that it allows people to bring these ideas together, like a mysterious disease and new ideas in the fields, like the idea of cancers and cells growing out of control, and lead to finally understanding what leukemia was.
LULU: I love this idea that when you're not sure what's what, maybe a name that’s gonna provide you a more sort of durable clue through shifting beliefs.
LULU: ... it's just a description. It's just what you see.
LULU: Is the idea here, like, that's always gonna be a sounder way to name things? Like, we should—that's a way to kind of excise our hubris out of the—the naming process?
LATIF: I think that's the—I think that was Mukherjee's argument.
SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Yeah. To not know, to not be able to name, to not have names that imply causes, it cleans up the field because then people can really think about things in ways that may not be known before. And so more and more as we edge towards the 18th and 19th century, people think of names as descriptive. What I would call, you know, Virchow kind of system: the tradition of naming things based on description alone. We still use that word, the word “leukemia.” It still remains as sort of like memories of this—of this very rich but somewhat forgotten history.
LATIF: Reporter, Carolyn McCusker.
LULU: You're steering me right into the territory I'm passionate about because my sister—my sister Alexa has dedicated her life to working with doctors, encouraging them not to name a sickness or an ailment for, like, five seconds longer than they usually do. Her whole work is in—in showing people that if you, like, just wait a moment before you slap a diagnosis on something, if you stay in that uncertainty place that Mukherjee talks about, like if you stay there for two more minutes, if you ask the patient a couple more questions, if you ask your nurse and the family member for them to weigh in with what they're seeing, like, when you do that, when you just wait a second longer, it increases diagnostic skills. It reduces error. Like, people—anyway, and I—her work, I mean, she's been doing this for 20 years and it—it has huge—like, it's probably one of the most influential things in—in how I see the world that, like, the rush to name—even if it's a better name, like, that actually when we can just wait and we can halt for a second, like, there can be value there.
LATIF: So in the effort of not rushing into our next story, you know, to really gain more insight, we're gonna take a break here. We'll come back on the other side. Maybe we won't come back on the other side. Maybe naming is pointless and we—you know, there are no stories of names left.
LULU: [laughs] We've got no more words to say.
LATIF: Or maybe we will be back with great stories that will blow your mind and you should keep listening.
LULU: Hang around and wait.
LATIF: And find out. Yeah.
LULU: To find out. Yes.
LULU: Radiolab.We are talking about names.
LATIF: And the next story is actually about an unnaming um as as you know we are in a moment in this country where there are a lot of things like places and monuments that are being unnamed or renamed this is a story like those from the front lines of that battle but it's it's like an inside-out version of it. And it begins with a young woman...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: [laughs] Um …
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE:: Hello.
LATIF: Iralynne McBride.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE:: Okay.
LATIF: So 2017.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: In Southern Pines, North Carolina.
LATIF: It is her first day of high school. Her cousin is actually driving her to school in the morning.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: And my cousin parks in the auditorium parking lot.
LATIF: They cut through the parking lot ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: Walking to our school, like our classes.
LATIF: They get on the sidewalk that leads to campus.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: Started seeing all my teachers and other students.
LATIF: And the sidewalk starts to curve around this big brick building, the auditorium.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: And ...
LATIF: Ira says it was right then ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I just looked up.
LATIF: And she saw, up at the very top of this building ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: Were these big black letters that said, "Robert E. Lee [laughs] Auditorium."
LATIF: And so—so Iralynne is Black. She also knows enough history to know…
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: A Confederate general? Like, are—is this us? Is that our school, you know? And there was so many mixed emotions. It was angry, sad, scared. Like, it was just altogether, I really didn't know how to feel. So instead of, you know, going off of my emotions, I wanted to get information.
LATIF: So she decides on her first day of high school, she marches up to the principal's office.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I really did. I went straight to my principal's office.
LATIF: And just asks the principal. Like ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: "So can you tell me more about this? Because I'm kind of—kind of feeling a little weezy about it."
LATIF: That confidence, right?
LULU: Go Iralynne.
LATIF: So ...
LULU:: What's the principal say?
LATIF: Principal tells her ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: He basically told me that it wasn't the Confederate general.
LATIF: Common mistake. But actually, the auditorium is named after a former school superintendent who just so happened to also be named Robert E. Lee.
LULU:: Wait, does she buy that?
LATIF: But it's—I mean, it's true. His name was also Robert Edward Lee. So the auditorium was not at all named ...
LULU:: That's ...
LATIF: ... for the Confederate general. It was named for this other guy for this other reason.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: And that was about it. He was just like, "Yeah, don't worry. It's not the Confederate general. There's nothing to be scared of, da da da."
LATIF: And how did—what did you make of that?
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I thought—I was like, whoa! It was a very—it was a good eye-opener. It calmed me down a little bit, but then I was like, if I'm thinking that this is the Confederate general, then everyone else has to be thinking this too, you know? No one actually sat us down and talked to us about it, so we're all kind of in the blue.
LATIF: So Iralynne just sort of takes all of that, and—and for the rest of this year, school year, like, you know, every morning, she's walking into school past that sign. She is doing ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: All-girls' choir.
LATIF: Choir rehearsals.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: Plays and orchestra, Band, in the auditorium. And I just didn't like it. It didn't sit well with me.
LATIF: She said that, like, if it was up to her ...
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I probably wouldn't have performed under it, but I had no choice but to perform in the auditorium.
LATIF: Because even if it is a different Robert E. Lee, you know, that name is just so heavy.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: It's just—it's something, you know?
LULU: Yeah, it's like that first—I don't know. When you first said, "Oh, it's named after someone else," you have a moment of, like, "Oh, okay. Phew!" But then it does kind of curdle where you're like, is this a way to still get the name but have a perfect defense against the calls to change it. Or, like, it's like a weird immunity.
LATIF: Like a shield.
LULU: Justification. Yeah, like a shield.
LATIF: Okay, we'll get to that. We'll get to that.
LATIF: So cut—cut to the next year.
LATIF: Iralynne, she's in Speech and Debate.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: And the category that I was in was—I forgot the name of the category, but it's basically when you just recite a speech that someone's already given, and I did the Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott speech.
LULU: And she just nails it. And afterwards, she gets approached by another student.
LUKE DIASIO: Sure. So I'm Luke Diasio.
LATIF: He's a year ahead of her. And Luke seems to be the only other Pinecrest student who cares about this auditorium name thing.
LUKE DIASIO: It's just sort of kind of glaring to see "Robert E. Lee Auditorium."
LATIF: And so Luke was also in the Film Club.
LUKE DIASIO:: I mean, it's like it's four students that met in a room.
LATIF: And he decided he wanted to make a documentary about the auditorium. So he interviewed a bunch of students, tracked down the superintendent's family.
LUKE DIASIO:: They told me about this really good book.
LATIF: Tracked down this obscure book about the history of Moore County schools, and then wrote and directed this doc.
LUKE DIASIO:: I tried to do the voiceover at the beginning by myself, but I don't always have the most varied speaking style. [laughs]
LATIF: Then he saw Iralynne give this speech.
LUKE DIASIO: And I was like, she would be perfect for this.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I—I was so excited.
LATIF: She was like, "Yeah, I'll narrate it."
LUKE DIASIO:: Let's do this.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Iralynne McBride: In Moore County, North Carolina, Southern Pines, Pinecrest High School has an auditorium named after Robert E. Lee. But it's not what you'd expect.]
LATIF: So it's about 20 minutes long. It's on YouTube, called "Robert E. Lee—not that one." And so what you see in the documentary are two things.
LATIF: So first ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Iralynne McBride: We interviewed 191 Pinecrest students.]
LATIF: They go and they give out this survey.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Iralynne McBride: Between third and fourth lunch on April 2, 2019.]
LATIF: They ask a few questions, but essentially they're like, "Who is this auditorium named for?" And what they find is that ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Iralynne McBride: One third of students wrote that they didn't know why it was named that way.]
LATIF: A third of the students have no idea.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Iralynne McBride: One third of students thought that it was named after the Confederate general.]
LATIF: A third thought “general.” And then ...
LATIF: ... they got a handful of answers that were like very high school answers. The high schooleist of answers you can imagine.
LULU: Like what? Like what?
LUKE DIASIO: Somebody wrote on the paper, "What did that person do? First person to eat ass."
LULU: They never let you down. The high schoolers never let you down.
LUKE DIASIO: But the big kicker is the last question: "True or false: the name of the auditorium makes you feel unwelcome." We found that 18.8 percent said that it made them feel unwelcome. And our school is about a fifth to—it's around a fifth Black.
LATIF: So 20 percent.
LATIF: So not—maybe not a coincidence.
LATIF: So that was one thing that's in this documentary. And then there's another thing in the documentary, which is that ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: My father came from Virginia. He was born in Isle of White County, and the town was Franklin, Virginia.]
LATIF: … it becomes a little profile of superintendent Robert E. Lee. Who actually went by Bob, so I'm just gonna call him Bob.
LULU: Bobby Lee.
LATIF: So perfectly ironically, not only was Bob Lee not a Confederate general, he was actually at the forefront of the issue of racial integration of Moore county schools.
LULU: Whoa, in what era?
LATIF: So 1960s, after post-Brown v Board of Education.
LUKE DIASIO: But one of the biggest simplifications I think they teach in history class is that Brown v. Board happened, and then all the schools were desegregated. But in the South, there were a lot of schools that just straight up refused to do so.
LATIF: And North Carolina was one of those places. But what you learn in the documentary is when Bob became superintendent in 1959, what he would do was he would go visit his students.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: He would come home and be very quiet.]
LATIF: And he would see, like, the Black students living in just extreme poverty.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: Because he would go in homes where there were dirt floors.]
LATIF: And to him, desegregation, you know, he realized that, like, this was the right thing to do ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: He thought education was an equalizer.]
LATIF: ... before the federal government forced them to. So he got ahead of it. And in this documentary, these kids talk about how, you know, when he would go downtown ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: People would walk across the street not to speak to him.]
LATIF: ... white people would just avoid him on the street. He would walk into a shop ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: They all faced the wall. Some took papers and pretended they were reading the paper and faced the wall.]
LATIF: And his daughter actually told a story about how ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: One night ...]
LATIF: ... she was in bed.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: Daddy came up to me and said, "I don't want you to worry, but if something happens outside ..."]
LATIF: Outside the house in the yard, basically if there were to be a cross burning.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, documentary: ... I want you to go to this closet and don't come out 'til you hear my voice.]
LATIF: But he saw it through, and he integrated the schools of Moore County.
LUKE DIASIO: They were one of the first in North Carolina to actually receive a certificate of desegregation.
LATIF: And so, you know, hearing all this, you get it. You say, "Okay, this is a person worth honoring. You know, maybe something should be named after him." But ...
LULU: Totally, yeah. He's a good dude!
LATIF: But I mean, just—just that name! Like, you just ...
LULU: I know. Why that name?
LATIF: It's his name that is the issue. Anyway, at a certain point of reporting, I was just like, I need to talk to someone who was on the inside of the naming.
LATIF: Like, how did you name it that? And so we ...
LULU: And did you talk about this at all?
LATIF: And yeah, yeah exactly. And so we found someone who herself ...
PLAYER MCPHAUL: Look at this and see ...
LATIF: Yup. Mm-hmm, yup.
PLAYER MCPHAUL:: ... if this is doing right.
LATIF: ... she was a teacher turned school board member who has a terrific name herself.
PLAYER MCPHAUL:: Player McPhaul.
LATIF: Player McPhaul.
LATIF: Great, right?
LATIF: So who—who—how did you get on that school board? What was your background before that?
PLAYER MCPHAUL:: Well, radical leftist. [laughs]
LATIF: So back when she was a teacher, she was actually the faculty advisor of the NAACP chapter. And then after she retired in the late '80s, she joined the school board. And so she was on the school board at the time when they named that auditorium. So like—so we called her up and we were like, "What—like, what happened there?"
LATIF: How does the issue of a name come up, or the idea of a name come up? I mean, auditoriums don't even always have names. Like, what?
PLAYER MCPHAUL: You know, we love our names. I mean [laughs] and Bob had just done so much for the county. And he was such a force of nature.
LATIF: Player said for example, when Bob integrated the schools, there was basically a white school in one part of the county, a Black school in another part of the county.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: And oddly enough, imagine this, none of the white kids wanted to go to the Black school.
LATIF: And so what Bob did was instead of moving one to the other or the other to the other and busing and doing all these things that are so controversial, he's like, "Let's amalgamate. Let's make a whole new school, a really good school, the best school that anybody's ever seen in this area, and everyone's gonna come to this new school."
LM: So literally new building, new place?
LATIF: Exactly. And he didn't even—like, the school board there, they didn't have the money for this new school, so they built it piece by piece by piece.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: He wanted it open even if it didn't have a cafeteria or an auditorium. I mean, the kids had to eat out of vending machines for years.
LATIF: Like, through the '60s. And then they built a cafeteria.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: Oh, and a smoking area.
LATIF: And then eventually a school gym. And the last piece of this new school that gets built was the auditorium.
LM: Auditorium. Hmm.
LATIF: And the auditorium ...
PLAYER MCPHAUL: : Wasn't until 1990.
LATIF: ... gets made just a few years after he retires.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: And Mary Lou, who is a contemporary of mine, his daughter, she said that this was the final thing for her daddy. You know, I mean, and—and we—we all kind of felt like finally Pinecrest has what all the other schools had. But he had just done so much. We wanted his name on it. And his name was Robert E. Lee. And we knew Robert E. Lee, could be—you, know, people would think of the general. But as local Moore County people, we were talking about Superintendent Bob Lee. And—and I think we didn't care. We wanted to name it for Bob Lee.
LATIF: Right. Right. But, like, for instance, like—like—like, it wasn't named "Superintendent Bob Lee" or what—or whatever. I was like—because it felt like just his whole—his full name was more distinguished or something kind of thing?
PLAYER MCPHAUL: Yup. Mm-hmm. Because we even talked about that. I remember we did talk about it, and everybody said, "No, the man's name is Robert E. Lee." And…I think it goes back really and truly to recognizing that people could think it was named for the general, but just not having an awareness that that could be devastating to someone. And I think if we could do that in 1990 with people like me on the school board, thinking that I was very progressive, I mean, that's—you talk about white privilege.
LATIF: Yeah, right. In a way it's like the privilege to not have to think about this name as a—as a hurtful name in a way.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: To choose not to think about it.
PLAYER MCPHAUL: It's just one of those things that because we knew him, we thought, "Well, nobody'll care." You know, surely. It's 1990. People aren't gonna consider that we named it for the general. Surely we're beyond that.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I've actually had a couple of conversations with students like me that they felt scared in a way. Not only were they scared, but they felt like just—what's the word? They felt disrespected, just straight disrespected. And, you know, they were mad because they couldn't really do anything, or they thought that they couldn't do anything about it.
LATIF: So it's near the end of the year, finals week. Luke is spending his nights ...
LUKE DIASIO: Working on this documentary until the wee hours of the morning.
LATIF: He gets it done right before finals end.
LUKE DIASIO: And, you know, after the school finished testing, like, we would watch Jumanji or, like, Finding Nemo or High School Musical.
LATIF: But he asked the principal, "Could we show this documentary instead?" And the principal says, "Sure." So they screen this documentary for the students at the end of the year, and after the movie, a lot of students started coming up to Luke and say, "Cool. So are you gonna try to get the name changed?" Because this is 2019, and just two years before [crowd chanting "Tear it down!"]
LATIF: Statues of Robert E. Lee were in the national spotlight.
[NEWS CLIP: The monuments have become a focal point of protests.]
LATIF: Being vandalized or even pulled down in Charlottesville, in New Orleans, in Richmond. And Luke was like, I get it."
LUKE DIASIO: It's important that, if you're walking onto campus for the first time, you don't feel immediately alienated.
LATIF: So he went around …
LUKE DIASIO: ... collected petitions ...
LATIF: ... to change the name of the auditorium. And then ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Player McPhaul: So I need a motion to approve the work session agenda.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, school board representative: So moved.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, school board representative: Second.]
LATIF: ... he went in front of the school board. He showed the film, he gave them the petition. After that, the principal, the faculty, school board, the superintendent's family members, all of them started talking about they should do. Like, how do you continue to honor this man? Is the best way to pay tribute to him actually paradoxically to take his name off of the thing? Or—or is there a way to change it? And so, you know, some people suggested they should call it Bob—you know, Superintendent Bob Auditorium or something. But—but the current superintendent, his name was also Bob, and supposedly he didn't want people to think he was naming it after himself. And then the family, they seemed to prefer "R.E. Lee," because that's how their dad used to sign his name. And so finally after all this negotiation, they just took down the name "Robert E. Lee Auditorium," and in its place they put "R.E. Lee Auditorium."
LUKE DIASIO: That's what we ended up with. And I felt like, you know, that was an improvement. And I was sort of hoping for a bit more of a radical change to the sign, but I didn't let perfect be the enemy of the good.
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: So I do think that they changed it to R.E. Lee, and there are still gonna be people thinking that it's the Confederate general. I think they should have changed it to Bob E. Lee since that was, you know, a name that he used often. But, you know, a change is a change. [laughs] One step at a time.
LATIF: Yeah, I wonder for you, like, having worked on this project, in a way, like, being a part of the thing that made that change, right? That—that changed that name. And then seeing right now across the whole country, across the whole world, really, this is—there's a similar thing happening, right? I wonder, what do you make of that?
IRALYNNE MCBRIDE: I'm just happy that, you know, I was able to be a part of that change, even though it might have been a small one to some because, you know, it's only our school and it's only our district. It makes me want to be a part of the change that is about to happen. Like, I feel like there is a change going to happen sooner or later. It just makes me think that it's—I don't know. It makes me think that I'm not alone. It makes me think that there are other people out there that want the change and they're going for it, you know?
LULU: Radiolab - When we left off we were talking about slowing the process of naming, waiting a beat before your name. But now just to switch things up let's cram as many names in a second as we can.
LATIF: Giddy up.
LULU: We're off to the races baby.
LATIF: Courtesy of reporter Annie McEwen.
ANNIE MCEWEN: Okay.
ANNIE: I guess first of all, what do you think about horses? Like, what are your thoughts? Do you like them? Do you not like them?
LATIF NASSER: I—I like 'em.
ANNIE: [laughs] Okay.
LATIF: Like, I have no particular strong feelings about horses.
LATIF: Yeah, why?
ANNIE: No, I think just because I have such a deep love for them and I'm so blinded by that love. I just assumed that you are also in love with them.
ANNIE: Because I can't see outside of that. So—but I think most people are not. Most people are like, "Huh. Cool."
LATIF: Yeah, I'm—I think I'm ...
ANNIE: Knights used to ride them. How neat, you know?
LATIF: Like, maybe a friend's kid takes horseback riding lessons or something?
ANNIE: Yeah, and you're like, "What a little dweeb." Yeah.
ANNIE: Yeah, yeah. Anyway, so that used to be me.
ANNIE: Growing up, I was a big time horse girl.
LATIF: Okay. Great.
ANNIE: And I was especially obsessed with horse racing. I wanted to be a jockey and all that. But a thing that always kind of puzzled me about horse racing was what these horses were often named. And, you know, race horse names, I think it’s pretty well known that they can be kind of wacky, like Seabiscuit or Tabasco Cat, or sometimes they’re just, like, these random phrases like “Forgot My Shoes” or “That’s Show Business.” But what I didn't fully realize is how much some of these names sound like they were written by a middle-school boy.
TOM DURKIN: Is this going on, is this really going on the radio??
ANNIE: ummm yeah
TOM DURKIN: Okay.
ANNIE: This is retired racetrack announcer Tom Durkin.
TOM DURKIN: I’ve called the Kentucky Derby a number of times, and the Breeders Cup 23 times, and in total maybe eighty or 100,000 races. It was enough.
ANNIE: That is so many races!
TOM DURKIN: Yeah.
ANNIE: For 40-some years, Tom was the guy who stood up in a glass box above the stands with binoculars trained on the racing horses below, calling all flavors…
TOM DURKIN: …ummm…
ANNIE: …of horses…
TOM DURKIN: Well let’s see, there was a horse called uh Bodacious Tatas.
ANNIE: Okay, nice.
TOM DURKIN: Ummm, Titular Feast, uh, Colder than a Witch's.
TOM DURKIN:: There was a horse in France called Big Tits.
ANNIE: Yeah, just saying it like it is.
TOM DURKIN: Big Tits.
TOM DURKIN: Yeah.
ANNIE: There's G-spot.
TOM DURKIN: Peonies. You know like the flower? Peonies? Peonies Envy.
ANNIE: There's Pussy Galore.
TOM DURKIN: Sock Tucker.
ANNIE: Sock Tucker?
ANNIE: Mm-hmm. Tucker.
TOM DURKIN: Oh, another one…
TOM DURKIN: …named Cunning Stunt.
ANNIE: Hmmm, okay.
TOM DURKIN: Okay? That you could really screw it up.
ANNIE: Which Tom says was sometimes the point.
TOM DURKIN:This guy Cesar Kimmley had these horses and he named them - he really tried to cross me up a number of times.
ANNIE: What do you mean? Like he's trying to make you, the announcer, stumble?
TOM DURKIN: Yes, ma'am.
ANNIE: No way!
LATIF: Like, she sells seashells by the seashore or something?
ANNIE: Yeah, that's actually one of them.
TOM DURKIN: She Sells Seashells.
TOM DURKIN: Yeah, that was a harness horse I had to call.
ANNIE: Or another one…
TOM DURKIN: Flat fleet feet.
ANNIE: Flat fleet feet, Flat fleet …
TOM DURKIN: Yeah.
ANNIE: Not nice.
TOM DURKIN: There was a horse called Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.
ANNIE: There's one that's just the letter A and then a bunch of R’s after..
LATIF: Rrrr [laughs] that one's funny.
ANNIE: And another …
TOM DURKIN: A horse called Yaka Hicca Micca Dola.
ANNIE: Oh, my gosh.
TOM DURKIN: …total gibberish as far as I know.
ANNIE: So …
LATIF: Yeah. Why do—like, why?
ANNIE: Why do people name their horses like this?
ANNIE: I don’t know why. But according to an interview I found with Philip Sidnell - it’s possible that it’s just always been this way. There were these chariot races back in ancient Rome.
ANNIE: Ben-Hur, exactly. Super dangerous, super dramatic. And the names of these horses, because they were important, they were written down.
ANNIE: And even back then, there were, like, Golden Glory.
LATIF: Yeah..Or like Hermes or something.
ANNIE: Yeah but instead they had names like Chatterbox. And there was one named Snotty. Like, snot from your nose.
ANNIE: This is the time that Jesus Christ was walking the Earth, and people are naming excellent horses after the mucus that drains from a nostril.
ANNIE:: I don't know. I personally feel like they could've tried a little harder, but anyway, I also learned that potentially the most famous war horse of all time, this beautiful, powerful, gray-white stallion from 11th-century Spain, medieval Spain, this horse is the stuff of legends, folk songs. There are statues in Spain of this horse. This horse's name was Babieca.
ANNIE: And I thought, that's like a—that's like a nice name.
LATIF: Babieca? Yeah.
ANNIE: But translated to English, Babieca means – stupid.
ANNIE: It just means "stupid."
ANNIE: So. One could say naming the horse Bodacious Tatas is just..tradition. Anyway, back to Tom.
TOM DURKIN: Yeah. Let's roll.
ANNIE: Because people can and do name their horses pretty much anything they please, but Tom's the guy who has to say those names.
TOM DURKIN: Yeah, that's—that's work, baby. That's work.
ANNIE: And he's up there in that glass box on race day ...
[horse race trumpet]
ANNIE: ... squinting through binoculars as he follows the horses around the track.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tom Durkin: On the outside it's Aka Lena, on the rail is Sweet Over Melissa, between those two is Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.]
ANNIE: Doing his best to get these names right even when some of them are meant to trip him up.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tom Durkin: Around the far turn, and the leader is Sweet Over Melissa by a head. Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do right there second on the outside by Aka Lena runs in third. At the rail, Without A Peep is now fourth, just turned outside. Life Support is fifth. Then She's Prime sixth, followed by Heavenly Pursuit seventh, Our Land Is Our Land is the trailer as they come to the top of the stretch.]
ANNIE: And even if that name's a silly joke, in that moment he has to take it seriously.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tom Durkin: And as they turn for home, the leader is Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.]
ANNIE: He makes these names—for once—worthy enough of the true awesome power of these horses. He's giving them their due. And for a moment, the horse girl in me was happy.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tom Durkin: They're in the final furlong. It's Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do!]
[Clears throat ]
CALEB SEXTON: Excuse me
BECCA BRESSLER: Hi how’s it going?
CALEB SEXTON: I'm sorry. I have seasonal allergies, and now my voice sounds like this.
BECCA: Oh no
LULU MILLER: Next story comes to us from producer Becca Bressler.
BECCA: Okay we are gonna start with this guy.
CALEB SEXTON: [clears throat] I'm gonna drink some tea.
BECCA: : His name is Caleb Sexton. He's an audio engineer in California.
CALEB SEXTON: Yeah.
BECCA:: And in October, 2010, early October, Caleb is scrolling on his phone.
CALEB SEXTON: On Twitter.
BECCA:: And he comes across a tweet.
CALEB SEXTON: From my friend Bailey, who said, "Hey, there's this new social network." It had just come out that day or the day before.
BECCA:: Just released in the App Store. And apps are new back in 2010.
LULU: Right. And there's a lot of jokes about, like, "Can you believe it?" Some kids make money on designing apps!"
BECCA: I actually don't remember that at all, but ...
LULU: [laughs] It's like, not even a joke. It's just…Okay.
BECCA: [laughs] Anyways, so he hears about this app called Instagram.
LULU: Oh, I have heard of that one.
BECCA: Have you? Have you heard of it?
LULU: Okay, so it was like new then?
CALEB SEXTON: It was—it was early days.
BECCA: So Caleb sees the tweet, downloads the app, and goes to make an account. Username at Caleb.
CALEB SEXTON: I just typed in my name, my first name, "Caleb" and hit return, and it said, "Great, you're now Caleb." And so I thought, well, this is great. If this takes off, I'll have a short username. This would be cool. Kind of like a badge of tech honor.
BECCA: But beyond that, just grabbing something with his name on it felt kind of special.
CALEB SEXTON: My name is not—Caleb is not a super common name. I mean, it's commoner now, but in the '80s, when I was growing up as a kid, my name wasn't on the souvenir license plates and key chains and stuff.
CALEB SEXTON: My brother's name is Joshua, and so he—he would find stuff all the time, and I never would.
LULU: Oh I definitely feel you, Caleb.
CALEB SEXTON: Yeah, mine always said, like, "California" on it or whatever.
CALEB SEXTON: And so to have something with just—I think to have something with just my name on it was cool. And I knew when I would get…a few of my friends had first name handles on instagram. My friend Bailey - She had a first name handle. Another friend of mine, Jesse, had a first name handle. And We would joke about it with each other being the first names club, and things like that.
ANUJ VERMA: Yes. My instagram handle is @ Anuj. That’s at Anuj.
BECCA: This is another member of this club, Anuj Verma. Anuj is another tech guy. He's actually a friend of my sisters.
ANUJ VERMA: She is my gossip partner. She's the first person I go to with any information I get.
BECCA: Anyway, for Anuj, this app was a really fun play space. He was a kid who liked photography.
ANUJ VERMA: I looked at my first photo and it has like 3 likes on it.
BECCA: What’s the photo?
ANUJ VERMA: It's a picture of a Krispy Kreme donut box.
BECCA: That’s a great first post.
ANUJ VERMA: Yeah. I think early on, I was posting everything. I was posting this chicken nugget shaped like a dinosaur.
BECCA: And Caleb too.
CALEB SEXTON: I tried to take pictures of interesting compositions.
CALEB SEXTON: I took a picture of a dead rat in the road that had a cigarette in its mouth. I wasn't a big filter user.
BECCA: Wait. Is it just because there are cigarettes on the ground and there are rats on the ground when they were next to each other?
CALEB SEXTON: Yes.
CALEB SEXTON: So I took pictures of interesting textures…
BECCA: …did you get the sense that someone put the cigarette in the mouth of…
CALEB SEXTON: I do not.
BECCA: Got it. Anyway..
[NEWS CLIPS: Instagram…]
[NEWS CLIP: Instagram, a company with only 13 employees bought today by Facebook for $1-billion.]
BECCA: As Instagram began to grow…
[NEWS CLIP: Last week, the platform crossed 700 million active monthly users.]
BECCA: …and more and more people around the world…
[NEWS CLIP …new milestones,,,]
BECCA: …were signing up…
[NEWS CLIP …two billion active monthly users]
BECCA: These first name handles..
LULU: Can I look up the first Lulu?
RACHAEL CUSICK: Ugh it’s asking me to log in..
MATT KIELTY: That can’t be my password.
LULU: Just at Lulu?
BECCA: …became super desirable…
MARIA PAZ GUTIERREZ: At Maria
ALEX NEASON: At Alex
BECCA: …and here on staff…
SIMON ADLER: Uh here is Simon.
RADIOLAB STAFFER: Who is this person?
BECCA: …some of us wanted to see
BECCA: who got our names …
MATT: a lot of selfies
SIMON: The were in the high school marching band
SINDHU GNANASAMBANDAN: Cute little photo of her in some cafe
ANNIE: A content creator
BECCA: Mostly it was just a curiosity.
ANNIE: So weird
MATT: Giving a cool little hand sign
ANNIE: Just person out there
MARIA: she seems amazing
BECCA: …some of us were maybe a little jealous
ALEX: It’s a freaking journalist
BECCA: …and some of us…
LATIF: …now I want this thing that I didn't even care about a minute ago…
BECCA: …actually just wanting the thing
LATIF: And it’s like a thing I can’t have. Thanks a lot Becca. Whatever. I don't care. I don't care, I don't care. I don't even care. I don't even care……Do I care? I don’t care.
BECCA:: But for the actual members of the first name club, @ Caleb and @ Anuj included, it wasn’t just some cool thing that you could tell people at a party. Having this first name handle started to make their lives…
ANUJ VERMA: Oh my gosh.
BECCA: …a little complicated.
CALEB SEXTON: I was like the flagship Caleb on Instagram. Every Caleb's mis-addressed mail was coming to me. Tweens were—would tag their—their school friends.
BECCA: Also ...
CALEB SEXTON: There was a YouTube celebrity named Caleb who died unexpectedly, then I was tagged in all of these memorial posts.
ANUJ VERMA: I think what started to get interesting was when people just started commenting on my photos.
BECCA: People he didn't know.
ANUJ VERMA: People with my name.
BECCA: Other Anujs slowly started, like, swarming his profile. He doesn't—he doesn't know these guys. He's never met them.
LULU: Are they supportive?
BECCA: Uh ...
BECCA: ... not exactly.
ANUJ VERMA: One of their comments is sell me your username.
MATT (VO): Hey bud my name is Jack and I’m willing to pay $1,200 for your IG handle all forms of payment available including Bitcoin…
ANNIE (VO): …give me the user…
SOREN (VO): Soren, can I have your username
BECCA (VO): I'm begging
SOREN (VO): I pay 100 euros
ANNIE (VO): Please…
BECCA: He got a DM from another Anuj.
ANUJ VERMA: "Just give me a number. I will write you a check."
MATT (VO): "He won't sell his username for anything, short of $10-million. I gave him a firm offer of $5-million and he countered with $10-million. So anyone asking, just know the number has been set.
ANUJ VERMA: I think I started to realize okay, this might be something people want.
MATT (VO): What the fuck is this?
ANUJ VERMA: Someone had made an account with the handle "I Hate Anuj."
BECCA: Their profile picture?
ANUJ VERMA: I think feet in a toilet.
BECCA: At some point this went from annoying to aggressive.
CALEB SEXTON: Certain Calebs would gather their friends and try to mass report me and get my account banned
BECCA: Anuj ends up making his profile private.
ANUJ VERMA: But now there are just different issues happening.
BECCA: Now it's just like a faceless army of Anujs banging at his door.
ANUJ VERMA: And one day, I think I got 300 emails asking for my password to be reset. In one day.
LULU: Wow, that's a lot!
BECCA: I know. Clearly, other Anujs ...
LULU: Oh, are trying to get in there?
BECCA: Trying to get in there. Seeing if they could break in. And Caleb too.
CALEB SEXTON: That happened, yeah.
BECCA: And one night back in 2017 ...
CALEB SEXTON: I opened up my computer to check my email, and there were, you know, 30 password reset emails.
BECCA: But this most recent email said that his password had actually been reset.
CALEB SEXTON: I started freaking out a little bit. Then I tried to—so I tried to login to my Instagram and I couldn't log in.
BECCA: But then he realized the last text message he got ...
CALEB SEXTON: Said "Welcome to Verizon."
CALEB SEXTON: "With your new phone." And I thought this is weird. So I called the phone company and I asked hey what’s going on and it took me a long time to get through and they said well it looks like you just got a new phone. Fairly quickly, I figured out somebody had called Verizon and had my number reassigned to their own cell phone, and then sent the password reset text message to themself, and that's how they got into my Instagram.
CALEB SEXTON: And so within about 20 minutes or half an hour it was over. Like all my stuff had been deleted and I had no instagram.
BECCA: And actually the next day that person put the account up for sale. It was, like, $5,000.
CALEB SEXTON: I felt awful. Like, I had built up a community of people, of friends—actual friends on Instagram. And the forum that we had those relationships in I had been kicked out of. And so those relationships were just gone. It sucked.
BECCA: Eventually, a college basketball player named Caleb picked it up. Caleb Love plays for North Carolina.
CALEB SEXTON: Who still uses it today.
BECCA: What is your instagram now? Handle? If you don’t mind…
CALEB SEXTON: It’s Caleb underscore. Caleb two underscores Sexton. I think.
BECCA: I know it doesn’t have the same ring.
BECCA: But Anuj still has his account even though he says that he doesn't really utilize the app that much anymore. He just feels, yeah it’s kind of discouraged him from wanting to engage.
LULU: Hmmm…But then why would he keep it? Why not just take the money and give it to someone else?
BECCA: Well I think for Anuj, it’s almost like having this special thing matters to him more than being able to easily use the app
ANUJ VERMA: You know I think growing up as having like an Indian name you know now may be more common - I think my relationship with my name was that most people see those four letters and have no idea what that sound makes. And you have your teacher who looks at the name pauses and you instantly throw your hand up because you know it's you that's next on the roll call. So that’s the kind of my childhood with my name - you really are trying to just educate people on it and so now when I see maybe 200 password resets it’s like holy crap there are a lot of people with my name in the world.
BECCA: Yeah that makes me wonder if having this kind of cool factor around your social media handle– like does it feel like it now has capital that it didn't feel like it had when you were a kid?
ANUJ VERMA: I think so. I think there is some sort of validation to it. Or, like, it gives me a little bit more confidence in the name, or I'm not um every time I go to Starbucks and sure you’ve heard of this - It’s like you come up with the name or something because it's just not worth describing to people.
BECCA: That—what is your name in—at Starbucks?
ANUJ VERMA: It used to be Andy.
ANUJ VERMA: Which, I don't know. I just one day, you know, four letters, "A" name, stuck with it.
ANUJ VERMA: But, like, now I say my name because I look at it—my wife actually gave me this advice. I look at it as like a moment to tell people what my name is.
BECCA: The one and only…
ANUJ VERMA: My name is
ANUJ VERMA: My name is
ANUJ VERMA: @ A n u j
ANANUJ VERMA: That’s at Anuj
LATIF: Why, like why do people want it so bad? Like why does everyone want the one name - the @ your name - like why is that so desirable?
LULU: I feel like this is just a primal human thing we do, like in science you know taxonomists the first time they name a species it's the sacred thing it’s called a holotype. It is like a sacred specimen: the first one to define the brown Falcon species is held somewhere and it gets you know the very first specimen to name a line…it's a sacred moment. I feel like it’s our internet holotype in a way you know.
LATIF: Hmmm it’s like writing your name in the snow.
LULU: Yeah right in pee or not.
LULU:How else does he write it in snow? You led me there.
LATIF: With a stick?
LULU: Okay well to end our show, we actually have a story that's kind of about this it's about the possibility of a brand new name being born for the last of a thing. It comes to us from actually several different Webster's - the first of which is our own senior correspondent Molly Webster.
MOLLY WEBSTER: So my start with this word was nine and a half years ago, when I first started at Radiolab.
[CLIP, Apocalyptical Live Show: All right, everybody. Let's collectively rewind our minds back in time 10 millions of years into the past. 66 million years ago, to be precise.]
MOLLY: One of the first things I reported and produced was the Apocalyptical Live Show. That show was about the asteroid that came down and, like, essentially annihilated the planet, and killed all the dinosaurs And a question got lobbed into the room between me, Jad and Robert, which was just like, 'What do you call the last dinosaur?' That last dinosaur that, like, rahhhhr—like, roared?
LULU: The very last one to take a breath?
MOLLY: Yes, but not like, who was that? Did they have a name like Brian the stegosaurus? But like what is the word to describe the animal that is the last remaining one of a species?
LULU: Like the term for the last creature standing before a species goes extinct?
MOLLY: Yes, that’s it. So I just went to look up that exact question.
MOLLY: And what I bumped into was just a hole. There's no word.
LULU: That’s kinda wild that there isn’t a word for that.
MOLLY I know, but inside the hole…I found a letter. And so in the correspondence section of Nature, April 4 1996. The title that Nature gave it is “The Last Word.”
MOLLY: And it says, "Sir, we need a word to designate the last person, animal, or other species in his/her/its lineage. We do not have one word to describe the last person surviving or deceased in a family line, or the last survivor of a species.” It goes on for a while, but you get the gist. And it was written by two people - Robert M. Webster, not related to me, and Bruce Erikson. And I wanted to find out why they wanted to write the letter. Why they wanted this word. And it turns out Robert Webster has died but I did get Bruce on the phone.
BRUCE ERIKSON: Hello?
MOLLY: Oh, good. You can hear me.
BRUCE ERIKSON: I can.
MOLLY: And It turns out he and Dr. Webster worked in a nursing home where one of the patients didn't have kids and no surviving family members.
BRUCE ERIKSON: He was the last person in his family, that when he passes away, you know, there's no one else. There's no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents, children.
MOLLY: He was the end point, and he wanted a word for himself.
MOLLY: Yeah. And so while we were wondering about the last animal of a species, um in this letter they were wondering about what you call the last human of a tribe. And they kind of grouped these two ideas together and they actually proposed a name. I’ll keep reading, “Correspondence with etymologists and publishers of dictionaries to find a single word for “the last of the line” in any language has been fruitless with no word known. 'Endling' was suggested when we were playing with possible new words.
BRUCE ERIKSON: So but I threw out the word endling.
MOLLY: You are the inception of endling? I didn’t realize that.
BRUCE ERIKSON: Yeah, a month later Dr Webster sticks his head in my office and says to me, I’m trying to get the word you came up with in the dictionary.
MOLLY: In order to get a word in the dictionary you actually have to get it published first. So that’s why these two men wrote the letter to Nature in the first place.
MOLLY: “Etymologists will recognize the two components for the derivation of 'Endling.' 'End' has several meanings, including 'Extinction' and 'Finish concluding part.' '-Ling' is a suffix added to denote 'Connected with the primary noun,' but also includes 'Line' in 'Lineage.'”
MOLLY: All of which put 'Endling' in that category of words like 'Earthlings,' 'Siblings,' 'Foundling." I learned there's a word called 'Cloudling,' which is a tiny cloud.
LULU: I mean that is a really lovely word - endling.
MOLLY: I liked it a lot. But it caused so much reaction. People started writing in letters being like no we’ve got a better word.
LULU: Huh. Like what?
MOLLY: Some of the responses were I suggest 'Terminarc,' to designate the last of lineage.
MOLLY: It’s is very powerful positive spin on utter death.
MOLLY: Yeah, another word was 'Yatim'—Arabic for 'Orphan' or 'Unique of its kind.'
MOLLY: Another one was 'Relict. Also Omega and Ender. But 'Endling' is the one out of the pack that took off. It becomes a name of a symphony in Australia. This is "Endling (Excerpt) One" by Andrew Schultz. And then there was, like, a death metal album called "Endling." Oh, no. Doom metal.
MOLLY: They're Dutch. There was an art exhibit at the National Museum of Australia. There was a contemporary ballet. There have been a number of, like, essays written about it. There's an Endlings television show that is now streaming on Hulu in the USA. And there’s also supposed to be a video game ….coming in spring 2022.
MOLLY: And so now that that endlings been published, it’s out in the world, and it's been used a lot in the art world, I, Molly Webster, called Merriam-Webster to check in on Robert Webster's quest to get this name in the dictionary.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: You're saying Webster called?
MOLLY: Webster called...
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Right. [laughs]
MOLLY: And um...They answered.
MOLLY: Well, more specifically, Peter Sokolowski answered. And he’s a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.
PS: It mostly involves researching and writing definitions.
LULU: Can I just say that is so cool?
MOLLY: And I asked, now that the word 'endling' has been published, what is the deal with getting it in the dictionary?
PS: This was a word that was noticed by, appropriately enough, our biological sciences editors. They noticed it and drafted a definition a number of years ago.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: The definition reads, “The last known individual of a species or lineage.” But what's interesting about this is there's a kind of a big asterisk. This entry was drafted three or four years ago, and it's still not published.
LULU: Wait, so they have the—they're like, “We're ready to go. We're aware you're out there, word, but we're not publishing you yet.”
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Because when this word is used, even today, it nearly always is somehow explained.
LULU: So the dictionary waits for a word to become so popular it doesn't need a definition to then create the definition for it?
MOLLY: Yes. They are actually waiting for us in order to put it in the dictionary.
LULU: You know, it would be kind of neat, is what if this story helped get it to definition level, makes that word popular enough to become a word.
MOLLY: Yeah, I was totally with you on that until I called…
MARY SZYBIST: Mary Szybist. I'm a poet.
MOLLY: Mary has this realistic poetry book "Incarnadine." And I first called her to her when we were working on Gonads, our series on sex and reproduction.
MOLLY: Don know if you remember any of that or remember it differently.
MARY SZYBIST: [laughs]
MARY SZYBIST: The truth is, Molly, I have no memory of it all.
MOLLY: What came up in this conversation is that Mary had also heard this word "Endlings," and as a poet who thinks about words a lot, she kept thinking about it.
MARY SZYBIST: I mean, I was born in 1970, and I mean, basically in my lifetime, very roughly, the human population has doubled and the wildlife population has been cut in half.
MOLLY: And in that way it feels important to have a word for this type of thing. But on the other hand, Mary was hesitant when it came to using a word for a singular human being.
MARY SZYBIST: I have a fear that it sort of puts the emphasis on the loneliness of that last creature.
LULU: Like it feels lonely to you.
MOLLY: Yeah, you know poor little endling.
MOLLY: Mary was sort of saying that she thought a lot about, like, these aunts that she grew up with who didn't have kids, and there was a sense of despair around them.
MARY SZYBIST: One of them, she—she—she became a kind of ghost in my grandmother's house. Another aunt who just sort of came apart after her husband died. And, you know, I remember her saying, "I might as well burn and throw out, you know, all my things, all my photos, nobody's ever gonna want them. There's nobody to pass anything on to." And—and she actually did. I think the care that they had put into the world toward other people just hadn't mattered that much, and I think had acute despair that other women who had put their care into children, that that had mattered that much.
MOLLY: There was this unspoken sense…
MARY SZYBIST: …they were sort of dead ends.
MOLLY: Like, honestly, as a person who probably won't have kids and also is often, like, alone, there is a tenderness that I could be the last of a Webster. Just millions of years of genetic history, genetic ancestry just ends here. But I also don’t think that is the sum total of what I am and so I don't even want a word that points to that and sort of doubles down on it. I want a society that says you are more than your genes and here are all the ways you have rippled out into the world.
MOLLY: Goober! Goober—that I gave Goober to somebody. Yeah, like maybe I am the last of a Webster. But I have given my Webster-ness to as many people as I could. And through them, they'll remember that we say 'clicker' instead of 'remote control,' and they'll make chips and cheese, which is just cheddar cheese on white tortilla chips…
MOLLY: Melted in the microwave on a paper plate.
LULU: Chips and cheese—oh, man, I want chips and cheese tonight. I want chips and cheese right now.
MOLLY: Oh, it's so good.
MOLLY: So good.
MARY SZYBIST: You know, one of the things that I started thinking about was the image of the coral reef. You know, it's a totally flawed and imperfect metaphor, but ...
MOLLY: Each individual coral animal—because it is an animal, even though it looks like a plant—is just like the size of a nickel. It’s really small, but still…
MARY SZYBIST: …attached, nourishing, feeding this larger system.
MOLLY: …it's this living, breathing community that has visually from afar like these little nubbin endpoints.
MOLLY: But nobody exists as a dead end. Even if you're, like, at the furthest, furthest, furthest little tip of coral way out there, there's like little things living inside of you, and you're giving back and you're, like, helping out your little community. Or you could break off and start a new community. And no matter where you are, where life takes you, when you die, then more coral comes along and they build more coral on top of your little dead, calcium carbonate, limestone-y body.
MARY SZYBIST: And you're part of a larger structure on which other life can grow.
MOLLY: So when it comes to using this word 'Endling' to try and, like, capture a human, I just don't think we can do that. Because I— I go back to and I'm—I'm guessing a lot here, but I go back to that person in the nursing home.
MOLLY: Who asked, like, "What am I?" And it's like, "You are you." And you are someone that asked a question that stuck with a doctor that led to a journal article that led to a dictionary fight that brought about some doom metal that led to all of us, sitting here thinking about this. And I just don't think that that means that they're an endling. Or that any of us are.
LULU: Senior correspondent, Molly Webster.
LATIF: This episode was conceived of and wrangled entirely by editor extraordinaire Alex Neason.
LULU: This episode was reported by Latif Nasser, Carolyn McCusker, Annie McEwen, Becca Bressler, Molly Webster and me, with help from Tad Davis.
LATIF: It was produced by Pat Walters, Matt Kielty, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Annie McEwen, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, with help from Eli Cohen.
LULU: Jeremy Bloom contributed music and sound design with mixing help from Arianne Wack.
LATIF: A very special thank you to [CAN YOU GET ME THESE NAMES]
LULU: And a huge special thanks to my sister Alexa Rose Miller. If you want to learn more about her work on how embracing uncertainty saves lives, check out artspractica.com.
LATIF: I’m Latif.
LULU: I’m Lulu. Thanks for listening.
LATIF: Uhhh. Yeah.
LULU: Latif, you know what I’d like to unname?
LATIF: What’s that?
LULU: Our medium of podcasts.
LATIF: Oh yeah — you did a whole tweet thread. What was the best one you came up with?
LULU: You want to hear some …
LATIF: Just the best one.
LULU: Okay. I kind of liked “balado,” which is a descendant of “baladeur,” French for Walkman.
LATIF: That’s not going to work. That’s not going to fly.
LULU: “Talkie” came up.
LATIF: Talkie? I don’t mind talkie.
LATIF: Oddcast. [laughs]
LULU: Oh, there was “RODcast” — radio on demand. ROD.
LATIF: That would really empower a lot of people named Rod.
LULU: Phoneblast. Phoneshow. Pocket program. Battery sucker.
LATIF: Pocket program, that is really — it’s so bad it might be good.
LULU: ARS — asynchronous radio show.
LATIF: No, none of these …
LULU: Worldcast. Publicast. Freecast. Opencast. Purecast. Vastcast. Ear therapy.
LATIF: Ear therapy. [laughs]
LULU: NBA — non broadcast audio. Earies. Should I stop?
LATIF: Earies? Yeah, wow. As much as I hate the word podcast, now I hate it slightly less I feel like.
LULU: [laughs] Auralgram … okay, I have to go to a meeting. Bye.
LULU: Oh, one more thing before we go. To all of our Lab members there is a special extra shiny, glassy piece of audio coming your way in the members’ feed. Mary Szybist from the “Endlings” story reads a poem that she wrote. A really beautiful one. If you’re a member, thank you, you can go check it out now. And if you’re not a member, but you would like to listen to it too, you can sign up at radiolab.org/join. You have no idea how much your support means to us.
TOM DURKIN: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster at the wire. With help from Carolyn McCusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.
FINN: Hi, this is Finn calling from Storrs, Connecticut. Leadership support for Radiolab science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simond’s Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]
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