In 2010, Patrick McKenzie wrote the now-famous blog “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names”, in which he listed 40 things that were not universally true about names.
Did programmers sit up, take notice and change their attitudes to names? Sadly, not really. We still get asked to fill our names out in online forms which assume we have a first name and a last name (in that order) and which refuse to allow us to continue unless we have filled out both. They assume our names can be entered in alphabetic characters, often only ASCII.
I fear that part of the reason that this blog post had less impact than I hoped was that Patrick did not give examples of how each assumption can be false. But having worked in a previous life on IBM’s Global Name Management product, I can assure you that it’s all true.
Still not convinced? In this post I’m going to list all 40 of Patrick’s original falsehoods, but give you an example (or two) drawn from my experiences working in this space. Ready? Let’s go!
- People have exactly one canonical full name.
It seems some people believe that you get a name and it never changes. Not so, even in Western countries, where a person may change their name when they marry. In Catholic tradition a person may get a middle name at time of confirmation.
- People have exactly one full name which they go by.
The author known most often as John Wyndham (author of The Day of the Triffids) bore the name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and published books under the names John Beynon and Lucas Parkes, as well as John Wyndham.
- People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
A performer may have a stage name, completely separate from the name on their birth and marriage certificates – they may even have a passport in their stage name.
- People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
Not so, even in Western countries, where a woman may choose to retain her unmarried name at work (where she is already known by that name), and use her husband’s surname on social occasions, and even on legal documents such as mortgages and loans.
- People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
An English name may traditionally consider of two given names (often called a first name and a middle name) and a surname, but that’s not required. A person may have no middle name, or may have several. A Portuguese name, for example, may have one or two given names, and up to four surnames (up to six in the case of a married woman), and those surnames may be phrases, such as da Silva or dos Santos, or even Costa e Silva).
- People’s names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
The renowned painter, best known simply as Picasso, had the full name “Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso”. Try fitting that name into a form which allows 30 characters for a name…
- People’s names do not change.
Given that we have already mentioned a person changing his or her name at the time they marry, this is clearly false. Moreover, Catholics may adopt an extra middle name at the time of their confirmation. It’s also common for a person to add a name, or change their name entirely, when converting to another religion – consider Cat Stevens becoming Yusuf Islam or Cassius Clay becoming Muhammed Ali when converting to Islam.
- People’s names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
It was common, for some people in Thailand to change names to avert bad luck. That might happen without a recognised event. Sometimes a person will change their name when someone else with the same name becomes famous, or infamous – a notable example was people changing their surname from Hitler.
- People’s names are written in ASCII.
Patently false, if we consider that ASCII does not include the accented characters which appear in French and Portuguese names. Nor does it include the Greek alphabet used in Greek names, Cyrillic characters for Russian names. Then there are scripts like Devanagari for Indian names, Chinese characters (hanzi) and Japanese characters (Kanji), and many more.
- People’s names can be written in any single character set.
People have names that mix, for example, Kanji and Latin, or Hanzi and Latin, or Hangul and Latin characters. In many cases this is because they have a “Western given name” to cater for those of us unable to pronounce the given name in their native language.
- People’s names are all mapped in Unicode code points.
The Unicode code standards team continue to add code points to the standard to accommodate rarer and rarer characters, and the vast majority of names are already covered, but there are still exceptions, such as the symbol that “the artist formerly known as Prince” adopted. Even if we eliminate such curiosities, there are (a few) alphabets which are not yet covered by Unicode (perhaps the most realistic example is Aymara, a script for a language spoken by well over a million people in South America; less realistic is Klingon, or the character sets invented by J R R Tolkien for his Middle Earth). Moreover, Unicode only includes a subset of Chinese and Japanese characters, and some of the omitted characters are used in names.
To complicate matters further, there are languages which do not have associated scripts – they cannot be written down. There are no Unicode code points for such languages. Names in those languages might be captured in phonetic symbols, but that’s not particularly helpful, because the majority of people are unfamiliar with the phonetic alphabet.
- People’s names are case sensitive.
Many character sets are not case sensitive – Chinese and Japanese, for example – uppercase / lowercase is an idea that is simply not applicable.
- People’s names are case insensitive.
Some character sets are case sensitive – Latin, for example. More importantly, there are character sets where characters may be accented in lower case, but not in upper case, so it is not possible to provide a “round trip” from lower case to upper case and back to lower case. Correct capitalization can be very important to some people, such as the owners of the surnames Mackenzie and MacKenzie.
The correct use of case is also important with surnames such as van Gogh, du Barry, da Costa, O’Brien, and D’Agostino, and given names like Jean-Pierre.
- People’s names sometimes have prefixes and suffixes, but you can safely ignore those.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Dutch name Pieter van der Meer is not the same as Pieter Meer, even though “van der” is a prefix.
You might consider Junior to be a suffix in Robert Downey Junior, but if you omit it, you are referring to his father, not to him.
In Arabic names, the suffix al-Din means “of the faith” or “of the religion” – names such as Taj al-Din (“crown of the faith”) or Saif al-Din (“sword of the religion”) are not the same name when the suffix is suppressed. An Italian name such as di Stefano is not the same as Stefano.
A Spanish woman with the surname “viuda de de la Cruz” is the widow of a man with the patronym “de la Cruz”. Omitting those prefixes changes the meaning of the name.
- People’s names do not contain numbers.
Even if we ignore the cases where the number is a generation (Thurston Howell III, for example), there are cases where a number is part of someone’s legal name. Jennifer 8 Lee chose to give herself the middle name of 8 because 8 is associated with good fortune.
- People’s names are not written in ALL CAPS.
In some countries (notably French speaking) it is convention to write a person’s surname in all caps to make it clear which part of the name is the surname. This convention has solidified to the point that rendering their surname not in all caps may be regarded as impolite.
- People’s name are not written in all lower case letters.
e e cummings preferred his name written in all lower case. So does k d lang. It’s polite to follow the pattern used by the name’s owner.
There is an Irish / British surname ffrench which is conventionally written in all lower case, although that tradition is suffering from poorly designed software which insists on capitalizing it.
- People’s names have an order to them. Picking any ordering scheme will automatically result in consistent ordering among all systems, as long as both use the same ordering scheme for the same name.
In the Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh would be indexed and sorted under G, for Gogh; in Belgium the same name would be indexed under V, for van Gogh. It’s not possible to adopt a single ordering for names which will yield a universally accepted order. The system used by many libraries is to apply the rule appropriate to the place of birth of the person in question (not a rule I’d want to try to apply in software).
- People’s first names and last names are, by necessity, different.
An Australian businessman and politician called Benjamin Benjamin died in 1905. Jerome K Jerome was an English humorous writer best known for Three Men in a Boat. Owen Owen was a Welshman who founded Owen Owen Ltd, operating a chain of department stores. And let’s not even get started on the wrestlers and actors who adopted repeated names for stage purposes.
- People have last names, family names, or anything else which is shared by folks recognised as their relatives.
In Java it was common for a person to be given a single name, and not to have a surname. The Indonesian presidents Suharto and Sukarno both had no surname, for example.
- People’s names are globally unique.
Tell that to anyone named John Smith! I have a somewhat less common name, yet I discovered a person with the same name working in the same industry in the same country (Australia).
- People’s names are almost globally unique.
Even with the tendency to use unusual spellings of names, it’s extremely common to find people who share a full name – try Googling your own name.
- Alright alright but surely people’s names are diverse enough such that no million people share the same name.
The Chinese name Zhang Wei is reported to be shared by over a quarter of a million people.
If we limit the question to surnames, about 20% of the population of South Korea have the surname Kim. About 10% of the population of northern China share the surname Wang, while more than 10% of the population of southern China share the surname Chen. Li comes next in both northern and southern China, making it the most common surname across the country. And nearly 40% of Vietnamese have the surname Nguyen.
Names are far from unique.
- My system will never have to deal with names from China.
Migration has spread names from every culture to (almost) every country. The days when immigrants were renamed on entry to a country have passed, mostly (for example, Vietnam still requires that an applicant for citizenship takes a Vietnamese name). It is unrealistic to expect to avoid names from other countries, although you may see them in a transliterated form.
So a Chinese name like 周潤發 may appear in your system as Chow Yun-fat, or Chow Yun Fat, or even Yun Fat Chow (Chow is his surname).
- Or Japan.
- Or Korea.
- Or Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Botswana, South Africa, Trinidad, Haiti, France, or the Klingon Empire, all of which have “weird” naming schemes in common use.
- That Klingon Empire thing was a joke, right?
It’s difficult to find examples of people using Klingon names as their official names, but should we stop someone doing so? Once we can handle the things required for other cultures (such as the embedded apostrophe for “O’Brien”), we can support Klingon names without extra work.
- Confound your cultural relativism! People in my society, at least, agree on one commonly accepted standard for names.
And will your software only be dealing with people named by your society?
- There exists an algorithm which transforms names and can be reversed losslessly. (Yes, yes, you can do it if your algorithm returns the input. You get a gold star.)
There is no algorithm (short of remembering the original format) which can transform a name in a guaranteed reversible way.
- I can safely assume that this dictionary of bad words contains no people’s names in it.
This is a common mistake – many “bad words” are not bad words in other languages, and some are used in names. Moreover, not every society restricts what words may be used in a name; it’s perfectly possible that someone’s name may have been established in such a jurisdiction.
- People’s names are assigned at birth.
Births are recorded in most countries, but the effectiveness of the system varies. The exact rules vary by jurisdiction, but all allow for some delay in registering a birth. The length of the allowed delay varies from at least as short as 3 weeks (Scotland) to at least 2 months (Australia), and there is provision for registering births later.
The child’s name may be recorded at the time that the birth is registered, but it doesn’t always happen (birth registrations with a name like “Baby Boy” or “Baby Girl” still happen, when the parents have trouble choosing a name, or the child is a foundling, for example).
- OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
- Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
- Five years?
- You’re kidding me, right?
There are cultures where a person’s adult name is not chosen until puberty. Prior to this the child may have a “milk name”, or a temporary name.
- Two different systems containing data about the same person will use the same name for that person.
If this were true, then there would be no market for software which reconciles different databases.
In my own case, some systems contain my formal name, including my middle name. Others have just my first given name and surname, or my nickname and surname. And I’m a simple case. My wife was in some systems with her maiden name, in others with her married name, with or without her middle name, with her full first given name or with either of two spellings of her nickname.
- Two different data entry operators, given a person’s name, will by necessity enter bitwise equivalent strings on any single system, if the system is well-designed.
Imagine what happens when a name is entered by a person hearing it over the telephone. Consider cases like Thomson and Thompson; or Johnson, Johnston, Johnstone, and Jonsson.
- People whose names break my system are weird outliers. They should have had solid, acceptable names, like 田中太郎.
No, your system is badly designed.
This particular example name is perhaps best known as the name of an alien in an anime series (and a manga). There have also been real people with this name.
- People have names.
This one is perhaps the most difficult for which to give solid examples. There was an isolated culture in which no one had names – they referred to everyone in relative terms, such as “my mother’s eldest sister”.
Let’s Wrap This Up
So there you have it: examples for (almost) all forty of Patrick McKenzie’s “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, here are what I think are the most important facts to consider the next time you’re designing a system that processes names:
- Do not use terms like “first name” or “Christian name” – “given name” is the most commonly accepted term in English.
- Keep in mind that half of the world orders names with the family name first.
- Many cultures use something other than a single surname inherited by all members of the family – some use a patronym or matronym (or even more than one); while some do not have a surname at all.
- Punctuation can be a vital part of a name – the Irish surname O’Hara is not the same as the Japanese surname Ohara. Jean-Pierre is not the same as Jeanpierre, nor is it the same as Jean Pierre – Jean-Pierre is a single given name, while Jean Pierre is two separate given names.
- Spaces do not necessarily separate parts of a name – de la Cruz is a single surname, not three separate names; Chinese names written in hanzi are written without any spaces.
- Capitalization is not as simple as making the first letter of each word uppercase – van der Meer may have a capital V when used without a given name, but has a lowercase v when the given name is present.
- Use the name as a whole, rather than trying to break it into parts. For example, do not try to address a man using Mr last-word-of-name – this can fail in many different ways:
- Where the surname is written first (eg: Chinese)
- Where the correct usage is of the patronym, and it is not last eg: Spanish, Russian
- Where the surname is more than one word, eg: Spanish, such as de la Torre
- Where the name contains a suffix, such as Junior