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context is everything

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 30, 2006 12:47 PM
Since name-of-app (or name-of-codec, etc) complaints are common, and frequently trollish, I'll limit myself to this short rantish reply:

"Familiar" is not the same as "obvious." Names of software aren't *quite* like the names of cars, but consider why outlandish car model names aren't that big a deal. If someone mentions that they drive a Tahoe, you don't have to be very familiar with that name to figure out they didn't come to work transported by a town, a lake, or a ski resort. Names that don't seem to convey much (and don't, except for some word association -- which might not be the association the makers intended) are perfectly adequate, and totally appropriate, when talking about cars, *because the context makes them so.* If someone doesn't know that by "Aztek" you mean a hideous botch of a Pontiac-branded automobile, you can parse it for them. Car brand names are chosen for any number of reasons, but not usually to convey the idea that it's a passenger conveyance. (See the Coneheads movie for a deadpan listing of the name origins of the / Lincoln-Mercury Sable.)

Seemingly outlandish names for apps, codecs, and programming languages operate the same way, or at least nearly so. Nearly, because the name of software *can* be a clue to its purpose or function, as in the cases of Outlook Express, Quark XPress, Delphi, Oracle, Kai's PowerTools, The Sims, Doom, C, Pascal, Perl,<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.net, WinAmp and ICQ, the meaning of each of which is of course immediately obvious.

[<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:) ]

The "funny name" problem is one that gets a lot of bile (or shaking heads, as here) in the world of free software, and it seems like the folks who despise playful, clever or odd names aren't into being convinced; so be it, the other side is just as stubborn. But for most users (at least of free operating systems, I don't have a Windows machine here to compare) it's no problem at all. When I open up what I consider the easiest menu to reach on my (funny named) GNOME desktop -- that is, the upper left menu -- I see a list of choices, incluing one called Graphics. That lists the (funny named) application The GIMP, but the menu listing actually says "GIMP Image Editor." Hovering the mouse over it for a second, a descriptive tag appears: "Create and edit images or photographs." That series of clarifications at least borders on heavy-handed! Most of the other items in the Graphics submenu have similar tags; I wish I could say they all do, but I'm guessing -- since I'm too lazy to check -- that KDE uses a different approach to this descriptive tagging, because the KDE-centric apps in this list don't pop up those clues, but I think they do under KDE. Stupid inconsistencies!

Programs need names, and their creators have motivations of various strengths for creating programs and for naming them. Some are more straightforward than others; straightforward is fine, but it's not the most important thing in the world. Closed-source software names are often no more indicative of their functionality (as in my tongue-in-cheek list above), and even when they are, the relationship still takes a lot of background for it to seem intuitive. "PageMaker" and "PhotoShop" didn't mean anything in 1980 to even the hippest personal computer user, even if a time traveller could have gotten the idea through in a pinch, and pitched those as plausible names for the programs they're now attached to. Others have made that argument better than I even want to bother trying here, so I'll leave it that that.

And what about Google? A misspelling of a mathematical term indicating a number that is (for earth-person purposes) close to infinity. It conveys nothing specific, but (to me at least) it's a cute, pleasant word somewhere between inoccuous and intriguing. Like Ogg Vorbis. in fact, and like Thoggen, perl, and many of the other frequently derided open source project names. And since many websites really *are* apps these days, there are easy targets like Yahoo!, Friendster, and Orbitz.

[Aside: In the late 70s, SNL stretched "With a name like 'Smuckers,' it's got to be good" into "With a name like 'Death Camp,' it's got to be good." That made me laugh, but Thoggen is easily pronounceable and without any obvious negative imagery, at least to English speakers. It's not "Death Camp."]


p.s. But I hate "Ekiga" too -- not sure how to pronounce it, and not sure I want to know. What if it's "eh-KEYE-jhzuh"? It's nearly "Death Camp," as a name, even though the app is cool.



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