by Thursday Bram

Content notes: Misnaming, deadnaming, assimilation

We treat names like some sort of unique identifier—a useful key for organizing a wealth of other information, especially in software development and data science. But doing so loads a level of expectation on a proper noun that can’t possibly handle the strain. At a purely technical level, we need to talk about why we have such a reliance on so-called ‘real names,’ yet still can’t handle any name outside a very narrow set of constraints.

The technological ripple effects of screwing up names are pretty far flung: depending on the assumptions a programmer makes about human naming conventions, entire countries may be completely unable to to use a piece of software. On a purely practical level, misunderstanding how names work can increase costs across internationalization, customer service, compliance, and plenty of other departments.

On a more human level, getting a person’s name wrong says something fundamental about how much respect you have for their identity. Names are core to who we are, across cultural boundaries.1 Eliminating some of the more damaging assumptions we make about names is a question of ethics—of acknowledging the basic humanity of people who aren’t just like ourselves. We can start with the four assumptions listed below.

Assuming Similar Naming Conventions

It’s easy to assume we know a name when we hear it. We put together a first name and a last name, and there you go: names like John Doe sound so correct to us that we can use them as place holders if we don’t know someone’s name.

At least, that may be true if you’re living in the U.S. In China, you might hear 张三 (Zhang San)— which literally means Zhang Three, combining the most common family name in China with a random number. It’s like using Smith Two as a filler name for an unspecified person. Take note: in China, the standard naming convention is family name first, followed by given name, while in the U.S. given names come first, followed by family names. There are dozens of other naming conventions using zero, one, or more given names, family names, adjectives, and prepositions used around the world. Let’s skip titles and other add-ons that aren’t strictly part of a name, though these are also common in many places.

Assuming anything about the length, character set, or other conventions that you might expect to hold true across every name ever is foolhardy. Even the idea that a person has a name at all can be faulty, like when dealing with newborn infants who may not have received names yet.2

Assuming Uniqueness

Katie McLaughlin (the ‘Katie McLaughlin’ who contributed to Issue 4 of The Recompiler, not the ‘Katie McLaughlin’ who won a gold medal at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships) organizes KatieConf. At KatieConf, every speaker happens to be named Katie (or Katherine, or Catlyn, or a name that stems from the root “Katherine”). Not only has Katie found enough Katies to schedule a full speaker roster, these are all Katies talking about deeply technical issues.

There are surprisingly few names that are truly unique: while some naming traditions and naming trends emphasize giving children unique names, they usually still follow certain cultural conventions.3 That means name collisions, even among those of us whose names never appear on gift shop tchotchkes.

To make matters more complicated, some cultures use (or have used, because sometimes we have to deal with historical data) naming conventions with limited options. In Rome, during the first century AD, there were only about twelve given names commonly chosen.4

Assuming Permanence

Family names are also known as surnames and last names (at least in the U.S.). In general, we think that family ties are pretty permanent, but marriage is one of the most well-known reasons for a legal name change. In many countries, because women are expected to change their family names when they marry, there are automatic processes in place for allowing women to change their family names for free, as part of filing a marriage certificate. When a person becomes a naturalized citizen of the U.S. or is adopted, they usually have the option to change at their names as well. However, changing your name in the U.S. for other reasons (including transitioning) can cost hundreds of dollars.

There’s danger in the opposite direction, as well. Be wary of assuming that people will change their names at particular points in their lives. My dad addressed cards to me incorrectly for eight years because he couldn’t remember that I didn’t change my family name when I married my partner.

Assuming a One-to-One Relationship

I considered listing this assumption as a caveat of making assumptions about the permanence of a name: after all, since names are not permanent, obviously people can use more than one name over the course of their lives. But our assumptions about there being some sort of one-to-one relationship—one name per person—have to be separated out from the question of permanence, lest we make some sort of assumption about whether a person can have only one name at a time.

If we assume that people only have one name, we almost always fall into the ‘real name’ fallacy. Tempting as it is, the idea that people always have one name that is more ‘real’ than another stacks a value judgement on top of a bad assumption. To expect a ‘real’ name is to say that a particular way to identify someone is inherently better than another. Since ‘real’ names are often synonymous with legal names, that means agreeing with the local government’s interpretations of identity.

Personally, that’s a problem. If you reach out to me using my legal name, I assume that you’re either the IRS or a spammer. I use the same nickname just about everywhere. I also answer to a few other names, depending on the context: saying my Hebrew name will make me assume I’m back at my bat mitzvah, but it still gets my attention:

שרה רחל בַּת מנחם מנדל

I’ve acquired plenty of handles, screen names, and other nicknames I’ll respond to with more frequency: I’ve had people yell out my Twitter handle across a crowded room and get my attention more than once.

Assuming Sharing Names is Safe

While most of the assumptions we can make about names boil down to how names are structured, we need to also consider assumptions about how names are used. In general, most people are willing to provide their names to strangers and even to strange contact forms with very little concern for where that information winds up. That cavalier behavior has carried across to the people often in a position to collect names, such as banks, hospitals, and even dating websites. And while those institutions take some care to protect sensitive personal data, especially around your finances and health, names are often made freely available.

Just sharing a name can be enough to cause harm. Consider Google’s ‘nymwar:’ When Google+ launched in 2011, all users were required to use their ‘real’ name, which Google mostly considered to be the names listed on government-issued identification. Google suspended multiple accounts, including those of performers using stage names or those of people with unusual legal names. (Google even suspended William Shatner’s account due to their disbelief that Shatner would use their product.)5

Google has an impressively long history of irking users of its social media platforms, by the way. Google Buzz (one of the many social media platforms the company has launched over the years) debuted in 2010. Google Buzz was integrated with Gmail and automatically made public users’ names and information about their contacts. While Google Buzz offered fertile ground for a variety of privacy issues, one of the most terrifying consequences was the exposure of location, workplace, and relationship information to one blogger’s abusive ex-husband, directly endangering her safety.6

Assumptions and Assimilation

Writing code that doesn’t handle names properly may not be an intentional way to other someone, but the results between software that can’t handle different names and the actions of people that won’t use names correctly aren’t different. In the U.S., in particular, names have been used systematically for control and assimilation.

There’s a certain historic chicness to having a name changed at Ellis Island (even though that particular American myth doesn’t hold up under close examination7). Examining when name changes are forced on a population makes it clear that even changes made in a hurry by rushed clerks reflect government policies around assimilation.

Consider for a moment my Hebrew name: שרה רחל בַּת מנחם מנדל

Hebrew names are structured as patronymics. Your given name is paired with that of your father. Mine is Sára Rachel bat Menachem Mendel—my Hebrew given name, plus that of my dad. In some modern Jewish communities, families will also include the mother’s name in there, but naming tends to depend on the paternal line. My family probably didn’t have a family name until sometime in the 1800s, when Jews were required to adopt permanent surnames across Eastern Europe. My family name was also probably adopted as an effort to preserve a patronymic and stick it to the government a little: ‘Bram’ was a common acronym for several families, like the children of Reb Moshe, who used the first letters of ben Reb Moshe (or son of Reb Moshe) to construct a family name.8

The goal behind requiring Russian, German, and Polish Jews to adopt permanent names was part of an overall process to assimilate (and often convert) Jews into the predominantly Christian cultures they lived in. It’s a strategy that’s been used again and again in history, even recently.

Forcing new names, as an assimilation strategy, is usually part of a bigger plan. In the U.S.’s wars on indigenous people, renaming was used in the Carlisle Indian Industrial school model. This system grew out of policies of removing children from their families and placing them in boarding schools. At these schools, children were required to speak English, attend Christian churches, and answer to new names. Any failure to do so (including speaking their own languages in private) was punished harshly.9 As a policy, the assimilation strategy came close to success, reducing the number of speakers of many indigenous speakers to nearly zero.

Names as a Form of Control

Being forced to answer to a name that you don’t consider your own can start off as a small annoyance, but each additional misnaming can build, causing crucial issues. At its most basic level, a name is an identity—using a name that is not your own, even when required by law, is tiring. It can do psychological harm (especially for a person who has changed names due to dysphoria). For some people, using their former name can be triggering. There’s even a term for purposefully using an inaccurate former name when talking to or referring to a trans person: ‘deadnaming.’10

Deadnaming is an act of psychological violence. Unsupportive government agencies, media, and even family members use deadnames to minimize the reality of a trans person’s identity or even their humanity. Complicating the process of changing one’s name as a part of transitioning, while offering free, no-hassle name changes to heterosexual women who get married, is a way to reinforce structural inequities, just as refusing to address a family member correctly is a way to attempt to get them to fall back into old patterns of behavior.

The long history of name changes as assimilation tools, as well as refusing to respect the name changes individuals make for themselves, is one of the broadest forms of control that the government has. In building technology that allows for these forms of continuing control, we’re unthinkingly supporting systems that build injustice into our very infrastructure. Making the effort to do right by our users offers not only an opportunity to improve their lives, but also allows us to take a more active role in our own governance.

How to Start Getting Names Right

Cataloging the disasters you may face while implementing names is not enough. Most importantly, developers dictate how data is collected, how information is displayed, and even what data is considered worth saving. Few developers receive any sort of education about the cultural significance of any type of information they collect.

Some of the technical problems around naming conventions are, frankly, technical problems. We don’t force new programmers to learn all of the details of how time zones work, but instead refer them to libraries that already have clear, well-documented catalogs and functions that allow them to make use of existing work.11 Offering a similar library for names and other identity conventions may be the fastest way to make progress—of course that won’t solve all of our problems around naming assumptions.

We also have to talk about how to recognize assumptions, so that we can limit the number of new errors we make. The only practical way to limit assumptions about users’ identities is to employ developers and designers with diverse identities. A homogenous team, coming from similar backgrounds and having lived through similar experiences, just doesn’t have the breadth of knowledge to avoid generalizing from their own assumptions. One of the core strengths of diverse teams is the ability to speak to different experiences and use cases.

Thursday Bram is the editor of The Responsible Communication Style Guide. She writes about intersectional feminism, cryptocurrencies, kitchen sinks, and anything else that catches her interest. She organizes conferences, sticker swaps, and potluck dinners on a regular basis. You can find Thursday online at

  1. Watzlawik, Meike, Danilo Silva Guinarães, Min Han, and Ae Ja Jung. “First Names as Signs of Personal Identity: An Intercultural Comparison” 
  2. Shadoan, Rachel. “Unraveling Möbius strips of edge-case data” 
  3. Waugaman, Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman. “Our Evolving Black American Naming Traditions.” 
  4. “Roman Naming Conventions.” 
  5. “Nymwars.” 
  6. Jacobs, Harriet. “Fuck you, Google.” Content warning: abusive relationships, rape threats 
  7. Ault, Alicia. “Did Ellis Island Officials Really Change the Names of Immigrants?” Smithsonian Magazine. 
  8. Kaganoff, Benzion. “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History.” 
  9. “Cultural assimilation of Native Americans.” 
  10. Riedel, Sam. “Deadnaming a Trans Person is Violence—So Why Does the Media Do It Anyway?” Content warning: deadnaming, violence, assault 
  11. Scotts, Tom. “The Problem with Time & Timezones — Computerphile.”