How to name things?
October 4, 2013 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I would like journal articles, books and other serious treatments of how to name things.

I've heard a possibly-apocryphal thing that said that teachers presented with student assignments labelled with lame names like Hubert or Elmer graded them lower than those same student assignments labelled with non-lame names like David or Michael. And generally, in lots of domains it seems pretty important to name things right. But are there serious treatments as to how to name things?
posted by curuinor to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I would especially value works which are more abstract than a single domain. I would welcome a work on how to name fantasy characters but would welcome a work on the abstract characteristics of good names more.
posted by curuinor at 4:39 PM on October 4, 2013

Maybe you're looking for the topic of conlanging^? That's the name that has developed for the hobby / art of designing artificial languages based on the phonology and grammar patterns and other linguistic phenomena present in real-world languages, the sort of thing that J.R.R. Tolkien did in the course of creating the languages and place-names and personal names for Middle Earth., by MeFi's own zompist, is a good resource for that.

Perhaps this FPP would be of interest.

From the modern practice of marketing: product naming.

Your question also reminds me of 正名, the Confucian concept translated as "the Rectification of Names".
posted by XMLicious at 5:04 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Someone once left a copy of Names: A Journal of Onomastics at my house. I can't say I remember much about it, but you might want to research 'onomastics' and the American Names Society.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 5:14 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The term "onomastics" is what you're looking for.

This is popularly focused and not scholarly at all, but in my opinion the best website about names for humans is Baby Name Wizard.

For place names, I recently read and loved Names On The Land, which is an exhaustive guide to how American place names happened.
posted by Sara C. at 5:39 PM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One name for what you are looking for is branding.

If you are looking at how to give things "good" names, or how to name them "right", that's pretty meaningless without first determining what the name should do, and for what audience. Sometimes you might want to give something a name that's very bland and forgettable, or that evokes disgust, or that is very difficult for most people to pronounce.

I think I have seen some guidelines out there on coming up with names that will be understandable across cultures and languages, that's probably going to be the closest you can get to universal guidelines as to what names are good.

Scientific studies looking at the effects of names on grading aren't going to explicitly give information on what things ought to be named.

There's a chapter or two in very popsci book focused on unusual conclusions from economics. I don't recall the name of the book just now, but it was very popular a few years ago.

A few papers:



An interesting paper not so much on names specifically, but discussing the difficulties in conveying the nature of something across language and culture boundaries (which might be one thing you would want a "good" name to do), with some interesting ideas on how meaning is conveyed:

Excerpts from Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
posted by yohko at 5:48 PM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is probably tangential but I'm offering it anyway. Fire, Women, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff. It's technically about how we categorize things, but I think it's probably obvious how that's heavily dependent on what we call them.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:40 PM on October 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

The essay you would probably really like is "One Man's BEM" by Reginald Bretnor. It came out in the sixties and was like science fiction naming 101, but, given that authors still screw this up, maybe that's not a bad thing.

Somewhere in the Kid Charlemagne library of I used to write a lot of stuff for RPGs, I have a book of baby names that included a huge list of traits that people associated with certain names - useful for trying to get the idea of a character across in as few words as possible, or as subterfuge - because no one expects the serial killer to be named Hank.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:37 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a fairly famous quote by a guy called Phil Karlton - There are only two hard problems in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

Programmers spend a lot of time thinking about what to call fairly abstract things. Hence there is a lot of discussion of it.
posted by aychedee at 3:49 AM on October 5, 2013

FYI Isaac Asimov wrote an essay about how he chose the names for his characters.
posted by flug at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2013

I have found that the approach used by Wolfram in Ten Thousand Hours of Design Reviews is helpful, as he describes how he names the functions in Mathematica:
The name has to be something that’s familiar enough to people who should be using the function that they’ll immediately have an idea of what the function does. But that’s general enough that it won’t restrict what people will think of doing with the function.

Somehow the very texture of the name also has to communicate something about how broad the function is supposed to be. If it’s fairly specialized, it should have a specialized-sounding name. If it’s very broad, then it can have a much simpler name—often a much more common English word.

I always have a test for candidate names. If I imagine making up a sentence that explains what the function does, will the proposed name be something that fits into that sentence? Or will one end up always saying that the function with name X does something that is described as Y?
The article continues from those paragraphs, which are about halfway down the page, with quite a few examples of his naming scheme in action.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:45 AM on October 6, 2013

Best answer: Naming company Igor has a naming guide that explains their methodology here.
posted by daisyace at 9:50 AM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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