What's in a Name?

A bit of a random side-show while I’m working on the next post in my series about God.

Today I needed to write an explanation of how different people would interact. I started, as I often do, by naming them. So Suzie would say to Bob, such and such, and Bob would contact Esther to have her do such and such. I suspect we all do that a fair bit.

During a coffee break, it occurred to me that I spend too much time

  • Thinking up names.
  • Making sure I don’t have an obvious gender bias.
  • Making sure they’re distinctive enough to not confuse things.

So I enrolled my wife with a challenge. Help me standardize the names I use for random people. Adding to the above criteria I have another.

  • For the sake of fingers, names should be short.

Because (for reasons I won’t got into) I don’t write in a word-processor, but in a text editor, it would also be convenient if the names are the same length, so they take up the same space.

So, after a cup of coffee, a few Jaffa Cakes, and some searching through baby names websites, we have the definitive list of generic people names:


This list has 13 male and 13 female names (some names can be used for both genders – the predominant gender is used). And, if you use them in order, they will almost always give you as near to a 1:1 ratio as you could get. Some of the spellings aren’t the most common spelling for a name, but they are all common in their own right. The names are (obviously) all 4 letters long, and no two have just one letter difference. I’ve taken some care to remove obvious homophones (such as Bill and Gill) which could confuse things in a phone call.

What I didn’t do is to weight the occurrence on the list by ethnicity. I thought of this, but it turns out to be very complicated to do, since there just aren’t enough names to add this additional criteria. I have (perhaps halfheartedly) tried to use non-European names. But then again there’s a bit of a problem. Since I’m mostly communicating with Western, English-speaking readers, names they have to read twice or struggle over would be counter-productive. So the list is, unfortunately, biased towards my ear.

Fifteen fun minutes in the middle of an otherwise grindy day.



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3 responses to “What's in a Name?

  1. Sabio

    Gee, that was a hell of a coffee break. The burden of political correctedness is huge for you.

  2. Ian

    A few years ago I went to meet a couple of academics who I was working on an educational project with. I described this scenario, and both of them looked increasingly uncomfortable.

    Eventually one of them said: “erm, can we call ‘Bob’, ‘Brenda’?, because there’s no women otherwise”.

    It does get noticed…

  3. Oh, trust me, I was in the academy for 12 years. I know exactly what you mean. That is why I am no longer there. People like me don’t fit.

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