Names vs. Words: Strings for Identity vs. Strings for Information

There is a long-standing tradition of distinguishing names from words — although it is not formally codified (even language itself is not “set in stone”, but rather is undergoing constant evolution — much like a living being), it can be roughly said that whereas words are in the (or a) dictionary, names are strings listed on specialized lists (e.g. baby names, trademark names, names identifying a company, product, service, etc.

The purpose of names is to identify, and ideally a name should uniquely identify something (or someone). In an ideal world, a name would signify just one thing and exclude everything else. Try to explain that to John or to Joe or to Jane Doe and you will quickly realize we do not live in an ideal world. It seems that so-called “last” names were introduced several hundred years ago in order to more specifically exclude other Johns and other Joes … and perhaps some day soon we will again have to figure out how to make names like Jane Doe uniquely refer to this Jane and not that Jane.

Such thinking is what leads many to think that the most perfect name is a name which is the most extremely exclusive. Rare is good, unique is best.

Names have some similarity to words in selecting particular things, but they are also crucially different. Certainly no one would ever want to confuse eating with sleeping, and to mix up sex with rex would make many actors and tyrransauri in heaven rather “most irate”. Language does aim to specify, but it does not aim to specify uniquely. We eat many times over, we sleep many times over, we do and experience all sorts of things over and over again — more or less.

Therefore, although rare words exist (as do common words), I do not know of a single word that could be described as unique. Likewise, I very much doubt that a universal word ever existed (though it seems as though this is alleged to be the beginning of everything, as we find in the very first book the Bible, Genesis, the statement that “in the beginning, was the word”).

Today, we have a much more refined understanding of language. We understand that languages are not formed by decree or by other kinds over government regulation or state control. Instead they evolve according to the needs, wishes, whims and rational preferences of living people — in a sort of evolutionary process guided by principles much like “supply” and “demand” (and also the physical dexterity of the vocal apparatus, etc.). In some ways, language may perhaps be understood to evolve in symbiosis with humans, rather than being a technology devised by humans.

There is little doubt in my mind that so-called natural language is the most basic of all information technologies, especially if you include such messages as are conveyed by intonation, gesticulation, facial expressions, body language, etc. into your notion of natural language. The importance of this fact is usually overlooked when people discuss “information technology” (IT) today.

The main point I wish to make with this post is the following: It is very important to discern between names and words. The information technology (IT) functions referred to as “search”, and also “community”-oriented information retrieval must rely heavily on words (as only words/language can function as the basis of communication). In sharp contrast, identity is the opposite of  what is commonly referred to as “social” — it must be exclusively private, and ideally it would actually be unique.

 

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