Previously, I wrote about my fruitless enquiries into the question who comes up with those insanely bloodthirsty names that new drone planes carry. The only requirement for a good drone name seems to be that it conveys one clear message: ‘We’ are an invincible predator, ‘you’ are exchangeable prey.
Another thing I realised is that not all weapons carry such fantastic names. Nuclear weapons are never appropriately called ‘Genocider’ or ‘Furious Apocalypse’. They’re not even worth the reference to a predator or a hero. No 3.2 megaton ‘Orca’; no tactical nuke ‘Nixon’. Nuclear warheads have only dry code names: B61, W85. Except for individual nukes that have been detonated: Little Boy, Fat Man…. odd names for mega-death devices.
My bomb is bigger
Back in the days, the Soviets did that better, they called their biggest nuke “The Tzar Bomba”. That’s an emperor-class bomb that is! But wait. Communists hate tzars. So what was the message here?
Anyway, my hypothesis is this: When you try to convey a message that needs to be bigger than the weapon itself, you give it a name. The name then depends on who you try to impress. If you need to convince your own citizens of something, you remind them of heroes or beloved cities. Or virtues if you’re British. If you want to impress your enemy, you make sure that by the name of the weapon alone, there is a clear predator – prey relationship implied. Fighting Falcon, Reaper, Leopard, HMS Invincible – variations on the same theme.
The B61 nuclear bomb carries only a boring code because no name is needed to convince anybody that this is, obviously, an insane weapon.
Exploring the psychology of naming machines that hurt and kill other people, it is best done by reading the great space opera novels of Iain Banks. After reading his ‘Culture novels’ you will never be able to read the names of military missions or weapons with a straight face. Banks argues that the names of weapons say something about how mature a civilization is. If you still think you need to rule by force and by impressing the neighbours, you’re inclined to come up with unfriendly or even outright insulting names. Or you end up putting the name of person on a weapon. I mean, Ronald Reagan is NOT an aircraft carrier! He was a human being. And a jet engine aircraft is NOT a falcon. Falcons are way more agile for one thing ànd they lay more eggs. The F-16, I admit, is the faster bird.
Mature civilizations in Banks’ books really don’t need to impress anyone. Such civilisations revert to giving very functional names to weapons. No code, no bluff, just “Small Drone type 5”, when it’s the fifth type of small drone you developed.
Size isn’t everything
An even more advanced civilisation, according to Banks, will start to use ambiguous or even outright silly names out of pure disinterest. Borrowing ideas from Banks, it would be ‘Only Slightly Bent’ for an ICBM. ‘Peek-a-boo’ for a spy camera. ‘Size Isn’t Everything’ for an aircraft carrier, not ‘USS Eisenhower’.
Looking at the current state of affairs in international relations, I’d say it’s fair to assume that we will take our time as a civilisation before we transgress beyond threatening the neighbours. For when that time comes, I want it on record that I was the one who stole from Banks’ brain the perfect ambiguous silly name for the 170 kiloton B61 bomb that’s just lying around in Europe to be expressly not used: Killing Time