What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

It’s a wonderful quote from what is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. I play my English Literature class back in the day for foisting Romeo & Juliet upon me at a time I was neither emotionally or intellectually prepared for it and, essentially, moving me towards utter indiference to the works of the Bard for years to come.

But sometimes, something sticks.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo & Juliet – Wililam Shakespeare

Sorry, Juliet, I’m not entirely sure I agree with that.

Thing is, it doesn’t really matter which cap I wear, the power of naming intrudes with a vengeance. With my cynical grumpy-observer-of-humanity hat on, I am reminded what happens if you let people vote on names – Boaty McBoatface and friends comes to mind.

Meanwhile over in computing land, there’s no shortage of truly awful names, whether they’re weird acronyms contorted to fit through reverse engineering (or, backronyms) such as CAPTCHA: Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart – it’s clearly a play on ‘capturing the bots’ except it’s so awful you can’t even call it contrived.

And every programmer can tell you tales about the number of variables, functions, classes and methods they’ve struggled to name. I know a platform with tens of thousands of monthly users, that relies on a fundamental class in the platform’s code called Thingy. (I did not name this.)

And with my noodling-at-writing hat on, hoo boy does it get interesting. On the one hand there is the incongruous naming problem. I’ll let the Dungeons & Dragons guide relate it because it somehow manages to do so infinitely more effectively than I can.

In a group consisting of Sithis, Travok, Anastrianna and Kairon, the human fighter named Bob II sticks out. Especially when he’s identical to Bob I, who was killed by kobolds.

4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide – Dungeons & Dragons

And then there’s the second problem. Names give a sense of the thing whether you like it or not.

If you’ve never seen the TV series ‘Jonathan Creek’, I’d encourage it – it’s a murder mystery where the who is usually apparent early on but the how is the challenge. In one case, at the house called Ghost’s Forge, there is a murdered man’s face in the window and since the occupant of the house lived alone and no-one saw them, the assumption is that the murdered man was Ezra Carr.

Interesting how a name always conjures up an image of someone.

How Ezra Carr just has to be some grizzled, Dickensian old fogey… when it could just as easily be a charming young man in his late 30s.

Ghost’s Forge (S3E4) – Jonathan Creek

The description fitted – even if entirely incorrectly so. But it’s just another way that names have power; the very sounds imply a certain something, even the way it looks on the page conveys something, a sense that may have nothing to do with anything in reality.

I was once told by a former colleague that my (real) name gave him the impression of being part of a mafia somewhere. I never quite understood it myself. Anyway, just one more way names are complicated.

And that leaves us with the last problem. Certainly the biggest one for me – it sits not only on the writing one but edges into the computing one too. Names give something permanence.

When I’m not working, I freewheel a lot, throw ideas around just to see what sticks. And all the time they’re ideas, they’re malleable, the clay of creation at work.

Then they get a name and the name sets that clay. I don’t know what it is about naming a thing but the name gives it permanence. I am stuck carrying around half a dozen novels in various states of incompleteness because they have names, their characters have names and the act of naming them gave them enough hold on me to exist. So until I figure out how to make them complete, I’m sort of stuck with them.

It’s a good problem to have in a lot of ways, but it makes it awful crowded.

It also makes it hard if you have a project you want to do but the name won’t come. Especially in computing circles where you’ll end up naming files, folders, classes and things after the name of the thing.

As much as I’m no designer, conceptualising aesthetics is often easier for me than conceptualising names. It’s bizarre, but I think I should point to Douglas Adams for some wisdom on the subject.

“Difficulty?” exclaimed Ford. “Difficulty? What do you mean, difficulty? It’s the single simplest machine in the entire Universe!”

The marketing girl soured him with a look.

“Alright, Mr. Wiseguy,” she said, “if you’re so clever, you tell us what colour it should be.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – Douglas Adams

Colour you can usually change after the fact, but names are seemingly forever. The answer, of course, is blue. Blue is always a good default choice for things, apparently.

In a future post I’ll talk about something of the things I do to try to help with naming, because there are things I can do, some which may work for you – or not, but won’t know until you try!


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