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:

Anne
Bill
Carl
Dana
Ella
Flyn
Gale
Hope
Ivan
Jose
Katy
Luke
Mary
Neil
Omar
Paul
Quin
Ruth
Sara
Troy
Uday
Vern
Wynn
Xena
Yuki
Zach

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 Comments

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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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