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give a dog a bad name. A catchphrase meaning that if one acquires a bad reputation, they may never live it down. A longer proverbial version is “Give a dog an ill name and hang him. There are multiple interpretations: If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you can take him/her down or If someone acquires a bad name s/he is as good as destroyed.reference 1

This phrase is not about nominative determinacy or aptronyms (names that match one's occupation). It is kind of cute that one Linda Toot was once the principal flutist for the Milwaukee Symphony,reference 2 but it seems unlikely that her name puts her at risk of being arrested for snorting cocaine.

Think of this, instead, as referring to the power of labels and the nature of self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are many determinants of a teacher's expectation of her pupils' intellectual ability. Even before a teacher has seen a pupil deal with academic tasks she is likely to have some expectation for his behavior. If she is to teach a slow group, or children of darker skin color, or children whose mothers are on welfare, she will have different expectations for her pupils' performance than if she is to teach a fast group, or children of an upper-middle-class community. Before she has seen a child perform, she may have seen his score on an achievement or ability test or his last years' grades, or she may have access to the less formal information that constitutes the child's reputation.reference 3

Disturbingly, Rosenthal and Jacobson's study (and subsequent research) confirmed that teachers' expectations matter, that student labeling is often done on arbitrary and biased grounds, and suggested that teachers can, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce existing class, ethnic and gender inequalities. So acquiring a bad name, whether deservedly or not can indeed have negative consequences.

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The power of naming is particularly evident in discourse that surrounds legislation and in the names of legislative bills themselves. Hence we have pro life and pro choice;” nobody wants to be in the “pro abortion” group. It is no mistake that congress passed the “No Child Left Behind Act.” Sarah Palin made outstanding use of this strategy when she referred, erroneously, to “death panels” in regard to an element of health care reform. Once the label was placed it captured fears and imaginations. As the New York Times put it, Over the course of the past few monthstwisted accounts of actual legislative proposals that would provide financing for optional consultations with doctors aboutend of life services, fed the rumor to the point where it overcame the debate.reference 4

1. Scorpio. Expressions & Sayings. Scorpio Tales. Accessed Jul 24 2009 from http:// users.tinyonline.co.uk/ gswithenbank/ sayingsl.htm.

2. Drury, George. 2001. Awadmail Issue 63. A. Garg, ed. A Word a Day. Wordsmith.org. Accessed Aug 30 2009 from http:// wordsmith.org/ awad/ awadmail63.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Rosenthal, Robert, and Lenore Jacobson. 1968. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development. New York,: Holt. viii.

 

 

 

 

 

4. Rutenberg, Jim, and Jackie Calmes. 2009. False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots. New York Times, Aug 13. Accessed Aug 30 2009 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2009/ 08/14/ health/policy/ 14panel.html.

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About the illustration: Figure 1 shows an accusation. © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 is a protestor at a rally about health care. Provided by Peter Glickert who posted a larger version of this one on his blog, Health Care Protesters are Pro HATE not Anti Debate. Permission pending.

cf: until the last dog dies Last updated: August 30. 2009
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