Tuesday, August 21, 2007


I am in the process of fixing a conceptual problem in the software that I work on. As I began to delve into the code to change it, it occurred to me that the problem has resisted early attempts to resolve it because some of the key pieces of the program have misleading names.

This seems a trivial issue at first glance. Why get all hung up on the names of pieces of the code? Just fix the problems and move on. After all, we have a major release coming up in just a couple of weeks. But truly, names are not trivial. It is a basic human trait to name things. I believe that the significance of naming is reflected in the fact that the story of Adam naming the animals is one of the stories retained in the creation narrative. I honestly can say that I do not remember taking any great note of this fact in the past. The presence of this tale in the creation story should give us an indication of the importance of naming to humans.

Upon further reflection, this becomes obvious. We name everything, mostly because names give us short handles for the complexities of the universe. So much of many advanced courses studies comes down to learning the names of things; consider the examples of medicine and law. By learning the names of the things around us, we simplify the complexity and make the difficult manageable. Imagine if every time you wanted to talk about your child, you needed to go all the way back in your family tree to describe their lineage - their name eliminates all of that.

But names do more than just label things - they bring connotations and emotional content as well. This is why, in modern political discourse, it is so important that you get to pick the names used in the discussion - the term "pro-choice" has many fewer negative connotations than does "pro-abortion." The correctness of either term is not the point; the point is that the power to choose names often dictates the course of the ensuing debate.

But we use names internally as well. For years, I struggled against the internal name "useless" that I applied to myself. I didn't really recognize it, but that name informed everything I did and all of my thoughts about myself. As I learn to abandon that name and recognize the truth, I learn to apply more accurate names to myself.

There is a lot more to this; but I would do well to think more intentionally about the names that I apply to myself and to those around me. After all, they define the world for me, whether accurate or not.

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