The Problem of Naming and Identification

The obvious

In our thinking we reference things (objects or people) in abstract or symbolic ways, using images (shapes or faces), concepts (like “car”, “the big green thing behind me”, “mom”, etc.) or a mental pseudo-conversation with ourselves (this time using language). While less abstract and more language related are the thoughts, more is the need to reference things with an artificial and language-transmittable label: the Name.

Names came as the immediate and main attribute about new things that we create or are presented to us. Then culture, practical convenience and personal creativity guide the act of naming:

  • For People: A combination of family name (that may be in reference of a place of origin, ethnic group, occupation or other ancestral heritage) plus a common or unique/fabricated first name. The naming order varies depending on culture.
  • For Common Things: Usually a word or combination of words (most of them originated in ancient languages and then assimilated in the current one used) which are used for referencing (to point to or indicate a thing) and identification (distinguish a thing from others of the same kind).

Identifiers

Maybe the biggest problem when naming is to find or create the most original name to avoid repetition over certain scope. Commonly a person name can have many people assigned (e.g.: “Sarah Connor”), therefore a most universal and error-safe main attribute had to be created (e.g.: a national id. number like the SSN). Then the identifier (or “Id”) become a solution for feasibility, precision and unambiguity for massive and systematic naming.

I can think a couple of ways for creating identifiers…

  • Combination of features. For example, in the case of a new car model (with the commercial name not yet invented): Style + Engine Type +  Drive-train + Year (e.g.: “Hatch-Back.V8.4×4.2009”).
  • Path of dependency.  When identifying objects on a big hierarchy unambiguously. For example the now common URL, or a military reference: “NATO.Northag.BritishArmyOfTheRhine.2ndRoyalTankRegiment.Unit07”.

By using complicated names for universal reach, there appears the need to simplify them within the local context for practical (fast) use, or to make them special or relevant. Then we have aliases, which can serve to various purposes such as: local fast referencing, real identity hiding (e.g.: “callsign” of a combat pilot) or creation of multiple identities (e.g.: for commercial, personal or “alternative” activities).

Conventions

In structuring name conformation there can appear conventions according to the domain being represented. Some conventions can be:

  • By Prefixes (starting position) or Suffixes (ending). For example, in an astronomical phenomena name like “protonebulae” the prefix “proto” means “new” and the suffix “ae” means “many”. It, the naming using Latin and Greek words, appears to be an standardized (traditional, de facto?) way of naming such phenomena in the scientific community.
  • Syntax: This is very common for software developer to use different syntactic styles while programming. For example: Using all in uppercase for constants (e.g.: “PI=3.141592”), or using “camelCase” (first word in lowercase, the in uppercase every first letter of the resting words) for method names in the Java programming language (e.g.: “closeAccountNumber(990011);”).

Problems

About the problems of naming things, I can think of…

  • Homonyms: Words that are written the same, but that have a different meaning. Usually the real meaning is deduced from context, but if doesn’t exists we are lost. For example, the word “well” can refer a pit or way of doing.
  • Cultural and language issues. Consider the “Lone Ranger” and his native american friend “Tonto”. In Spanish “tonto” means “fool”, so his name have to be changed to “Toro” (bull).

Finally…

Lets think twice when naming. A good name helps to make more or less recognizable, findable or unique that named thing or person.

A whole subject apart is the naming of a commercial product. You can find books, websites and companies entirely dedicated just to create good names for products. I hope to write about that interesting topic in the future.