Key Term Seven – Nomenclature


Nomenclature – a set or system of names or terms, as those used in a particular science or art, or by an individual or community.


The nomenclature of New York City is both romantic and excluding. It is part of the reason New York can simultaneously hug you and punch you in the face, because of the way it can help you to communicate, and keep you from the conversation. Similar to jargon, nomenclature is an aspect of everyday taxonomy, because we distinguish the objects of our experiences with things we identify, classify, and name. Because nomenclature is a system of words used in a particular discipline, it is a way to help us map out New York City in our minds. This, in a way, helps us to mirror and represent the objects of our experience (or name them).

What struck me most about nomenclature was the significance and the permanence of the phenomenon. Different than a nickname, nomenclature is literally naming something, in a fashion to Adam holding up an animal and naming it for the first time. How does this apply to New York? There are so many things we just assume to have a legitimate origin, but we never question how it came to be. Why do we call the sky-high familiar building the “Empire State Building?” Historians do still not agree upon the source of the term “Empire State”. It’s been attributed to the state’s wealth and resources, but even this answer does not come without doubt. George Washington is rumored to have called New York City the “Pathway to Empire” once, but there is no documentation of this conversation. Another historian claims that the title was first used in 1819, because New York finally surpassed Virginia in population. Still others believe that it was named because of the success of New York’s first merchants. However, the true origin has yet to be found, leaving a gap in the nomenclature of New York. Still, I think that’s rather beautiful, that there are parts of the city that cannot be pinned down in a book. We call it the “Empire State Building” because during its opening in 1931, it was the world’s largest building, but no one is totally sure of where the name was first coined. The 1940 book Guide to the Empire State put it best when they solemnly stated, “It would gratify the people of New York if they could discover who first dared that spacious adjective”.


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