For years, Kyra Sims, a New York City–based musician, never went on tour without her buddy Otto. She describes Otto as loud, funny, and reliable. Once, when a train strike left them stranded in Eastern Germany, they were forced to hitchhike at night—but Otto helped Sims keep her cool. “She was in the backseat with me, and I had one hand on her the whole time in case I needed to roll out of the car,” Sims told me.
Otto, her beloved French horn, has been there for the grind and the glory of Sims’s career: countless practice sessions, the triumphs and rejections of auditions, concerts at Carnegie Hall, even a performance onstage with Lizzo at the Grammys. After years of playing the instrument, Sims bought a case with OTTO embroidered on the front. This label—originally a reference to a different horn brand, Dieter Otto—inspired her affectionate name. Now when friends or colleagues reach out to say hello, many ask about Otto too. The French horn has become, in Sims’s words, “a life companion.”
Our lives are full of stuff, and our stuff makes up a core part of our personal history. We can form complex, intimate relationships with the things we own—and sometimes this connection manifests in the form of a name. Many of us christen the items—cars, wheelchairs, sewing machines, insulin pumps, vibrators—that fill meaningful roles in our lives, enabling freedom, creativity, health, or pleasure.
Of course, most belongings don’t matter quite so much. And in America, we tend to own a lot. New items are routinely acquired, forgotten, and thrown away in an endless cycle of buying that carries major consequences for equity and sustainability. But owning goods isn’t inherently negative, and naming our things is one way to pull away from more thoughtless consumption. Our belongings can become valuable extensions of our selves—if we treat them that way.
When we give something a title, we reframe it as an individual (Otto, Kyra’s horn) rather than part of a more generic category (horn, an instrument), which marks it as worthy of attention. “Naming it shows the item is special to us in some particular way,” explains Laurel MacKenzie, an assistant linguistics professor at NYU. Further, she says, naming may make our relationships to important objects feel less one-sided. “We give things names to humanize them.”
Simply having a name for an object changes the way we interact with it and how we encode it in the brain. From the earliest stages of learning to speak, infants are more likely to notice the unique features of a stuffed animal with its own moniker than those of its counterparts that are referred to only by category. Studies have shown that named things are typically easier for infants to recall and identify among a group—even though, as MacKenzie reminded me, people tend to struggle with remembering actual people’s names.
Bestowing a name on something has an even stronger effect. Naming promotes a sense of control and psychological ownership, which is a form of bonding. In one study, participants were asked to assign names to everyday items, such as a mug or a stapler. When comparing the products they named with similarly boring substitutes, participants felt more attached to their named object, considered it to be more valuable, and even indicated a greater desire to buy it.
Giving titles to our possessions isn’t a new phenomenon. History is rife with examples of named ships, houses, and tools—some dating back millennia, such as a New Kingdom–era pharaoh’s cane whose half-surviving moniker is something like “Tautnefer.” Named weapons—take the Castilian knight El Cid’s sword Tizona, or Te Tuhiwai, the greenstone hand club of the Māori chief Te Rauparaha—gained reputations for deeds on the battlefield that persisted beyond their owner’s life span. And treasured objects with titles feature prominently in world mythology, including Icelandic sagas and Hindu epics, becoming important players in some of the most enduring stories.
Soonkwan Hong, an associate marketing professor at Michigan Tech University, points to identity as a key factor in understanding our relationship to material goods. “You may drive exactly the same car I drive. But my car is my car. It’s part of me and part of my history, so that makes it different,” he told me. Researchers like Hong typically categorize consumer behavior as either profane—buying things that are ordinary and readily available—or sacred, driven by our personal values and a longing for deeper meaning. Hong explained that as an item becomes more indispensable to our sense of self, we have a tendency to view it as singular. “In this way, you kind of decommodify this commodity.”
The opposite is true too: Things most people use all the time—phones, door handles, lamps—are less likely to be seen as singular, and therefore are less likely targets for naming. Even though these tools are essential to modern life, they are also easily replaceable—or, in the case of phones, designed to eventually be upgraded with a newer, better model.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Americans’ demand for material goods spiked, much of it feeding into familiar patterns of empty consumption. But naming something can serve to push against a culture of materialism. It’s a deliberate move—even if subconscious—to linger on a possession and to imagine using it in the future. Though there isn’t much comprehensive data on object-naming, the researchers I talked with agreed that people tend to name things they keep. That doesn’t mean you need to blindly name your toaster, but it does speak to the possibility of a more personal connection to our belongings. When we name an inanimate object, we are intentionally building a relationship, elevating it to a character in our lives. Not only do we feel closer to things that we name, but perhaps we name our things in order to feel closer to them.
This lines up with my own object-naming experience. Many years ago, I impulsively bought a tea set while traveling by myself in Central Asia. Cami (short for Chamomile) broke my budget and, I feared, would likely shatter into pieces before I got home. Each morning, while I wrapped her in layers of clothes, I gave myself—and Cami—a pep talk about how careful we’d be on that day’s bumpy car ride. Talking to Cami felt ridiculous, but also a little empowering. At a time when I felt vulnerable, journeying through unfamiliar territory, she gave me an excuse to be protective of something else. And she kept me company.
Hong told me some researchers believe that people write a biography of themselves with things, that our life stories aren’t complete without the items that matter to us. In my story, Cami became proof that I could handle the ups and downs of traveling alone, that I could care for my things—and for myself—even when I doubted my ability to do so. Let the record show that Cami sits on display in my kitchen to this day.