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Naming Matters

A close up of a milk snake
A milk snake in the wilds of the Wissahickon

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

One of the first things I learned about nature writing was the importance of naming things. It’s not enough to call something a flower or a butterfly. Is it a sunflower or a Black-eyed Susan? A Monarch or a Swallowtail? It matters.

I worked as a naturalist for a few years while I was studying writing, and I really thought it was important to teach kids the names of insects, birds, and plants because I firmly believe that if we can name something, we inherently will care more about it.

What got me thinking about naming recently was a walk my husband and I took in the woodsy park near our Philadelphia home. I was in the lead when I looked down and saw a snake, one like I had never seen in Philadelphia. I stopped and said calmly, “Snake.”

My husband responded, “It might be a Copperhead. It looks poisonous.”

Me not moving and actually trying to look a little closer. “Does it have a pointy head?”

“How about you just keep walking so we can get by?” Oh.

My husband was able to snap a quick picture and we were convinced that we’d had the first sighting of a Copperhead in Fairmount Park. I contacted the Friends of the Wissahickon, a local non-profit that helps maintain the swath of the park in our part of the city.

As I waited for a response, I started to think about how close we came to getting bitten by a venomous snake. My anxiety kicked into high gear. I thought: We can never walk that trail again. It could have bitten the dog. It could have bitten us! I read online about how people with copperhead bites can lose limbs.

But then I heard back from the Friends of the Wissahickon and had confirmation from a naturalist at Fairmount Park. Our snake was actually an Eastern Milk Snake. Harmless. And just like that our story of getting away from a deadly viper in the wilds of Philadelphia became wimpy us scared by a little milk snake.

All in the difference of a name.

And it reminded me about the importance of naming things in writing and how important it is to do the research to find out the names of everything in your writing. Writing without naming is weak, whether it’s in nonfiction, poetry, or fiction.

Because as Mark Twain said –“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Naming matters.



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