Importance of a Name

Back in the 50s, there was a workshop to decide what the field now known as artificial intelligence should be known as. For a long time, computational rationality was the forerunner, but in the end, we have what we have now.

Of course, I can’t really say that this decision affected much, but how much more does something like “artificial intelligence” spark the imagination then “computational rationality”. Would we have 2001: A Space Odyssey? Terminators? Asimov’s robot series? Deep Thought?

In a similar vein, Obama went with Barry for a while, but upon entering politics, chose to go back to his real name Barack. Why would he prefer such a foreign name, when he knew it would haunt him? Of course partly because it would used against him anyway and it’s better to be forthright about those things, but partly because Barack just sounds so much stronger than Barry. In a movie, Barack would be a proud, exotic warrior, Barry would be the guy still living with his parents at an awkward age.

Best known televangelist in the US always have a familiar, friendly first name like Billy, Pat, or Jimmy before a good American-sounding last name like Graham, Robertson, or Swaggart. This way their viewers can feel certain amount of familiarity with them even if there is actually none.

In Theros (an MtG world) there are two legendary (i.e. have their own named card) monsters, Polukranos and Tromokratis. These named probably don’t really mean anything, but as Theros is based on Greek mythology (somewhat loosely, actually more based on the popular understanding of, hence the krakens, multitude of hydras) both of these names work very well, as they sound like a legendary hydra and a legendary kraken.

In Ravnica (another MtG world) one of ten guilds running the world is known as Orzhov. Guess what they do? They use religion as a front for a multitude of enterprises, which are often cruel satire of real world businesses taken literally (they will, for example, take your soul, if you are not able to pay your debts). An excellent name, because it brings to mind the monolithic religions of the old world, namely Eastern Orthodoxy, but Catholicism is also definitely there. Sadly, the other nine guilds aren’t as well named.

The overall message here is that the names do matter. Our perception of things is large based on what they feel like. There’s a reason why so many of our words are onomatopoeic (meaning they sound like the sounds they describe). You just know Phyrexia (another MtG reference) just isn’t going to be a nice place.

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