the superpower of naming (mini-📝 3/100)

I find it fascinating that so many projects start with figuring out the name for the thing. The satirical flavor of this is securing the domain name for the project before work has even begun. Perhaps it can be used as a sign of whether it’s meant to be: if the domain name is available or not. Astrological building, divining the heavenly signs from the DNS registrars.

As easy as this is to make fun of, names are crucially important to the essence of what something is. It’s the first thing that people interpret and the perpetual mental handle for referencing later. It’s the metaphorical file cabinet in your mental library which you automatically shuttle any new related thoughts into. Imagine trying to make it common knowledge that blackberries aren’t, in fact, berries. It somehow just feels wrong and counter to what you body feels.

This sort of mechanism we use to reference things also makes renaming terribly difficult. You have to suddenly teach your mind to reroute everything that used to go to the old folder to a new one and reshape your entire mental model of the original idea. It can be hard to phase out the original phrases. You see examples of this in trying to change culture for common terms, like phasing out the term “master” for “main” in Github branches or insisting that sushi is toast. If you make it far enough, you can create meaning for a name where there was none before, as Google and Airbnb and Kleenex have seeped into pores of our societal language.

Sometimes when I’m in the grocery store searching for something judge on the edge of different named categories, I wonder about how these standards for categorizing things in large stores were even formed. For example, who decided that “peanut butter” deserved to be it’s own category or that tahini is actually a form of “peanut butter” rather than a “sauce” or a “condiment.” It turns out that while we have a lot of common associations with things, trying to group any large set of things into mutually exclusive groups is impossible to do efficiently. Designing a taxonomy that is MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, which is a fancy way of saying every item belongs in one group and all items are covered) becomes more and more of an impossible task the larger the set of items grows because everyone’s associations are slightly different. I got a taste of this trouble with my work on the knowledge graph at Airbnb, but the problem grows ever more insurmountable when you start bringing in all realms of human knowledge in.

The problem with trying to do this sort of neat, organized bucketing is that the categories themselves are names, and names are rough maps of concepts. The map is not the territory, and names are a prime example of that. The benefit of naming is the same as its con. Naming things gives your brain a handle to something simple to use as a bookmark, a shortcut to a mental space. This naturally means that it loses the richness and the depth of the encapsulated content. In naming, we map an abstract blob into a concrete symbol, the continuous into the discrete.

Because of the automatic interpretation we do with names, it also means names are dramatically important for how the idea it names gets interpreted and perceived. Packaging the same idea in a different name could yield drastically different results. We spend hours workshopping and namestorming and millions on marketing because the name is so crucial to how we’re perceived. And the instant perception of something in a world where the instant perception is multiplied and spread everywhere in an instant on social media is life-or-death important. I’ve seen this tension in having to package what I build into a form that resonates with the target audience. What we build is moldable. It’s like idea Playdough—you can shape it into different forms that will resonate with different sorts of people. Names are the spearhead—the front desk for your idea that sets the environment for the rest of your content. And that spearhead can be used for good or for bad, in the end it’s a method of manipulating people to believe the way you want them to. For example, BP manufactured the “carbon footprint” name to shift the blame for climate change to individuals away from companies. It was a sickening and brilliant battle strategy. The name set the scene for individuals bearing the blame and individuals needing to rally to provide solace. Oil companies were able to donate money and host charity events and champion individual change campaigns as mitigation measures.

This sort of manipulative action, which when caught sparks massive controversy, brings me to another inseparable aspect of naming. Names are the spoils of war. They say “history is written by the winner” because the winner in any struggle decides how it’s named, how it’s told. Much like scarce resources and weapons of mass destruction were catalysts for physical war in the past, names are the spoils fought over the in the internet and social media trenches today. John Palmer talks about the narrative wars that are fought now in Scissor Labels. From his post: “A scissor label is a word or phrase that, for the first time, establishes a widely embraced name for a trend without simultaneously establishing a canonical definition. It is a vague term masquerading as a specific one, where the missing definition is still up for grabs.” Scissor labels are the names most ripe for fighting because they represent the most upside. Securing ownership of the label is like securing the perimeter of oil-rich land. Once it’s yours, you have the capacity to exploit it as you wish.

Even when a name is established, it’s the basis for identifying who belongs and who doesn’t. I remember a vivid instance of this. I was a junior in college when we first made a Rice Computer Science Community Slack which included both alumni and current students, and I was setting up the various Slack channels, including those for different locations: #seattle, #nyc #sanfran... Immediately after I created the #sanfran channel and added folks, I received countless messages asking to change the name and making fun of the initial name. A survey confirms that “The City” or “SF” is the acceptable way of calling the city, and my use of the term “San Fran” clearly marked me as an outsider of the given community. It’s similar to the concept of asking the codeword as a test for gaining entry to speakeasies, exclusive gatherings, and secret societies (Iroh entering the White Lotus safe house in ATLA comes to mind).

Popular literature also loves to do iterations on this phenomenon. Ted Chiang in his short story Seventy-Two Letters extends nomenclature, the science of naming, into the seminal science of society. In the story, the science of naming is literally the science of creation, man’s pathway to replicating God’s original creation act by providing a language to imbue inanimate objects with souls: in essence, creating life from nothing. Patrick Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind crafts a magical world where nomenclature is one of the most powerful and mysterious skills. Kvothe, the protagonist learns the titular name of the wind, one of the most powerful names of which only a select few have ever known. In Literomancer, Ken Liu tells the story of an old man who can craft magic from Chinese characters by picking apart the meanings of their different strokes: “Even after so many men died because of a few magic words, we continue to have faith in the power of words to do good.”

This is the 3rd installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.