There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.— Phil Karlton
When you’re doing something important and creative, you end up trying to find a name for the thing you’re working on. And then you realize that naming is hard. A name is a pointer to something, a thing that is begging to be elevated above the ordinary. It’s a word that has emerged from the swamp of language to mean something on its own; a word that requires far less context than ordinary words to adequately point to something of meaning in our lives.
Creativity would often be wasted were its product not given an appropriate name. I recently saw an abstract painting called “Darkest before Dawn” and it struck me—a painting of blues and blacks and a large widening strip of white. The painting itself could be disparaged as simply colors thrown on the canvas, but with the name, it came alive in my imagination: in those colors, I saw myself in my most anxious moments lying in bed wishing the day hadn’t yet come.
Starting a business, a creative endeavor with a popular byproduct named “profit,” requires those embarking on the voyage to craft a fitting name for the firm. This is often a soul-searching affair, with family and friends consulted; a half-sketched dream is laid out in confidence to those we trust such that those few could find a Proper Noun that is somehow fitting. These Namers peer closely at the fragile life-form, holding back derision, doubt and disdain to look into the fog of the future to find something, anything, in that dream that will hold up for years to come. Sometimes the name comes in a flash of insight, other times in a hopeless resignation to the fact that nothing else seems to work. Sometimes the name is found searching available .com domains and state registries in the vain and glorious hope to find something truly unique; sometimes the name is simply the last name of the proprietor.
And names seem to stick in the collective memory. Americans in 2019 know the names Jesus, Caesar, Muhammad, Shakespeare, and Washington. Many have heard of the Gordian Knot and the Sword of Damocles and Occam’s Razor. Names like Waterloo, Hiroshima, Titanic, Hindenburg, and Katrina mean something; names like Nobel, Penicillin, the Pill, Democracy, and Internet mean something else again. These are words that resonate in our minds, that when spoken somehow ring louder than the words that surround them. They have more weight than the humble filler word, they have more depth than the oceans of prose that hold them up. A name will remain when civilizations fail when flesh that carried that name so proudly has long since returned to the earth.
And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.–Genesis 2:19, KJV Bible
In the beginning, God breathed into the nostrils of man, and man became a living soul. Some say that is when man achieved consciousness, some say that we were then given a spark of the divine. He did this after creating Heaven and Earth and the Seas; and God named some things, including man. But then God did something strange—instead of instructing Adam on what everything had been named, He instead brought the animals and presented them to Adam, and Adam named them. God presented; man named. God, who had so recently created Everything and saw that it was good, asked his youngest creation to give names to the older creations, using the strength and wisdom that that breath had bestowed.
There seems to be something universally divine in the naming of children. Culture, that intangible repository of actions in the collective, holds so firm a grip that the unconscious thousands name their children similarly: Anastasia in Russia, Wang Fang in China, Gabriella in Brazil, Olivia in America. Family history and familial recognition play their part in the larger cultural picture as well. Of my six children, five have middle names honoring aunts or uncles, and the sixth middle name is for a cousin. Disputes over names have led to court cases and divorces. Long nights have been spent poring over baby name books, and many tentative conversations between expectant spouses have started with “Whaddya think of…” and ended quickly with a disapproving eyebrow wiggle. Finding the name that fits all the requirements can be exhausting.
And as the child grows, the name of a child takes the meaning we bestow upon the child itself. I love the names of my children in part because I love my children, and the names have a valence that encapsulates all the care and struggle and joy and peace and frustration and enjoyment they have brought me. The emotional response to their names cannot be disentangled from the names themselves.
Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.–Elodin in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear
Merriam-Webster defines a name as “a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing.” It’s important to note the use of the word phrase in the sentence above because a name is more than just a single word. The “Assistant Secretary of State” is the name of a position in the American government and breaking it into its component words simply changes the name. Nouns, those words that identify people, places and things are words without enough meaning to capitalize, while proper nouns, which identify particular people, places and things, are words that have finally come into their own. Thus, not all words, not even all nouns, are names. A name is a phrase that connotates meaning upon an object, and the deeper that meaning, the more real the name.
Like any proper language, English has many words that mean nearly the same thing, surely so that poets must ne’er lay down their pens. Labels are names that classify something, monikers seem to be names with a slightly lighter meaning, tags are names that give additional information, aliases are names used in place of other names, handles are names used online, brands are names used by businesses, and pseudonyms are fictitious names. But names, under any name, are everywhere, and important.
It seems names came into being sometime in the primordial past when our ancestors began to realize that pointing no longer worked to pull the best out of the future. The act of pointing, by itself, seems to be a precursor to language and cooperation and to demonstrate a level of intentionality that simple hand-waving does not. Jaggers, that great Dickensian lawyer of Great Expectations, would throw his finger to pull the truth out of the less capable than he. My father would point at the dinner table, a point backed with that particular look in his eye, at the misbehaving child that needed correcting. Names seem to have been layered onto this pointing mechanism, and once our tongues got ahold of them, they were given the depth and nuance that we treat them with today. But at their basic they remain that simple index finger, intentionally identifying something such that it is elevated in the mind of all those around in order that it may be better thought about and examined.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.Exodus 20:7, KJV Bible
And then there are names that society demands you not use! Naming a product or service a swear word is likely to spell the end of that product unless you get lucky and hit just the right edgy tone for your audience. A friend of mine is named Fawn—a nice name in English—but that same word gets children in trouble in Sweden. Many jurisdictions disallow names that are too long, and of course, there are names that would cause mayhem everywhere were they used.
Names can be, have been, a terrible tragedy. Gypsy, jew, Dalit, nigger, commie, homo and jap are just a few of the names applied in wide swathes to denigrate, belittle and kill people in the last 100 years. Identity politics of the 21st century attempt to name broad groups in order to determine a person’s intersectionality and thus their meaning to the broader culture, often at great pain to individuals. Names have long identified the “us” we belong to while ensuring that “they” don’t belong, keeping our tribe pure and clean. We cling to names such as Republican or Democrat at the expense of our very intellect.
By the simple act of naming something, the other things fade into relative obscurity. Thus it is possible to name a bellyache “indigestion” instead of “colon cancer” or a cough as a “common cold” instead of “pneumonia” with tragic results. Raising a person, place or thing on a pedestal by necessity requires that it has now attained an elevated status in some sort of hierarchy. What, then, remains unnamed? Were they more important? Why were those ideas, those concepts, those objects passed over? What damage will result in them laying in the void, victims of lingering Type II errors, forever forgotten and unexamined?
Each [name in Mathematica] encapsulates some idea, some creative concept—frozen in a tiny clump of words. Like little poems. Thousands of them.–Stephen Wolfram, The Poetry of Function Naming (https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2010/10/the-poetry-of-function-naming/)
Scientific and technical discovery seems to come in a familiar pattern—the insight comes first, the name comes second, and the proof or prototype comes third. The insight, the eureka moment, is a fragile shower-thought, a vague hunch. Once the discoverer takes the time to name it—in the form of a hypothesis, or a patent, or a theorem—the rigorous scholarship and engineering must take place to protect the validity of the hunch. Tesla, that mighty inventor, could envision the moving parts of his AC motor in his head. But Edison, Tesla’s rival, could name things–Edison named 1093 patents to Tesla’s 300. Edison could elevate the lightbulb and the motion picture to the consciousness of the average American, while the Serbo-Croatian Tesla struggled to even make his inventions relevant to his immediate acquaintances.
Similarly, variable- and function-naming are notoriously difficult tasks. Any programmer that has been asked to refactor a piece of code knows has seen terribly-named variables, even if that code was written by himself! Programming, described by Fred Brooks as “pure thought-stuff” requires the art of naming to be honed to a level that is rarely seen elsewhere, simply because a good variable name must, at the moment of its naming, take into account all the various contexts in which it may possibly be used, and all its various meaning. Since software, unlike the tangible world, can be modified long after its initial creation this task is impossible–a variable which began by describing all types of a single entity may later morph into describing only a subtype of that same entity.
Naming positions in a company can cause similar dilemmas. You know a person has a good title when those who work with them can look at it and nod; and a person has a terrible title when those who work with them snort at the email signature line. When you’re hiring, you attract applicants first by the name of the position, and once the hook is set, by the perks of the job. When you’re promoting or reorganizing within a company, perception of the tasks, responsibilities, and authority will rest primarily in the name given to each position.
Again she fled, but swift he came.–Luthien Tinuviel, J.R.R. Tolkien
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinuviel
That in his arms lay glistening.
Not everybody is creative, and not everybody is doing important work. It must be so; but perhaps there are a significant number of you that are doing that creative, difficult work but have simply not yet taken the time to name that which God has presented.
So I beseech you: name your creation! The world awaits your discovery, and it can’t see it unless you point at it with a name that fits it so well that all must pause and say “Yes, yes! That was worth looking at!” Because until you name it, it will linger in the void, unarticulated, and all but uncreated, and certainly not “good.” Draw out that which you’ve done with a Name, and present that Name to a critical world.