Do You Assume Too Much About Names?

Jul 30th 2010

A tech blogger recently made this dramatic claim about personal names: "I have never seen a computer system which handles names properly and doubt one exists, anywhere."

The problem, the writer explained, is that programmers make lots of false assumptions about names. He listed a whopping 40 assumptions, from the technical ("People’s names are all mapped in Unicode code points") to the fundamental ("People have names").

I'll leave it to the tech sites to debate the implications for systems design. Around here, the long list of assumptions reads like a challenge. Can you think of major counterexamples -- preferably groups, not just outlying individuals -- to each of these generalizations?

- People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.

- People’s names fit within a certain defined amount of space.

- People’s names are case insensitive.

- People’s first names and last names are, by necessity, different.

- People have names.

Samantha: The Ultimate New Classic

Jul 22nd 2010

How well do you know the name Samantha?

It's surely familiar. Samantha has become a modern all-American girl name, still cruising along a decades-long run of popularity. It's long and soft, but the nickname Sam gives it balance (and a little attitude, too). The character Samantha Jones, played by Kim Cattrall on Sex and the City, has become the name's standard bearer. In fact, someone recently remarked to me that Cattrall's character is "such a perfect Samantha!" Which she is. Except she isn't.

For those of us who weren't yet following baby name trends 45 years ago, here's a little wakeup call. Take a look at the number of Samanthas born in the U.S. from 1963-1965:

At the 1963 starting point of that graph, Samantha was a total obscurity. It ranked well out of the top 1000, behind the likes of Joycelyn and Elvia. But in September 1964, a little sitcom called Bewitched debuted with a magical main character named Samantha. For perspective, that upward curve is steeper than for the name Miley when Hannah Montana hit the air.

Why Samantha? The name's precise origins are unknown, but most agree it was invented in America, probably in the late 18th century. It was modestly familiar in the 1800s, used at about the same rate as Permelia and Almeda. Then it faded away. So when the '60s sitcom creators chose Samantha for their charming suburban witch, they were clearly aiming for a quirky antique. The name set the character apart from the mere mortals around her, and fit her in with magical relatives like Endora and Hagatha.

They must have been flabbergasted to discover that they'd just named a generation of American girls. The nickname Sam made the name kicky for its times, and Elizabeth Montgomery's irresistible sparkle sealed the deal. A "timeless classic" was born. Meanwhile Permelia and Almeda still languish in obscurity. If the Bewitched folks had chosen differently, perhaps Sam would still just mean Samuel and the all-American girl would be called Perry or Al.

Today, it's almost impossible to hear Samantha as a trendy celebrity-fueled baby name. Which brings us back to Sex and the City and Samantha Jones. That perfect Samantha is actually a perfect anachronism. The character celebrated her 50th birthday in a 2008 movie, so she was born in 1958. Not likely. Nedra, Beulah and Lucretia were all more common baby names back then -- and it really wasn't so long ago.

Character Naming, After the Fact

Jul 16th 2010

Fictional characters are the best-named group on the planet. Their secret, of course, is that they're not named at birth. Their creators have the luxury of knowing who they become before choosing custom-tailored names.

In some cases, the names are chosen even later. Take The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen's original tale, the Mermaid had no name at all. But 152 years after her literary birth, Disney bestowed on her the name Ariel.

The recent Tim Burton film that sent Alice back into Wonderland was an extravaganza of after-the-fact-naming. Everyone from the Dormouse to the Red Queen was given new, more or less human names. The choices are occasionally too precious, but mostly spot on. Absolem the Caterpillar and March Hare Thackery Earwicket are standouts. (One naming complaint: the whiffling, burbling beast is a Jabberwock, not a Jabberwocky. Jabberwocky is the poem. As my daughter explains, "it's like Odysseus and the Odyssey.")

Gregory Maguire's Wicked series gave similar name treatment to L. Frank Baum's Oz universe. To my mind choices like Wicked Witch Elphaba Thropp and Cowardly Lion Brrr don't quite hit the mark, but the books' many fans may disagree.

The beauty of all of these post-hoc namings is that they're not exclusive. The source material is in the public domain, and we all have every bit as much right to name the characters as Tim Burton and Gregory Maguire do. Can you improve on their choices -- or think of other classic characters still in search of names?