On Naming an Open Source Project

Posted 13 Apr 2000 at 06:21 UTC by deusx Share This

I have an Open Source project, and it needs a name. Well, actually, it has a clever name already. Or, at least, I thought so at the time. I tried to find a unique name that was witty and intriguing and memorable and-- well, I over-thought this one. Almost no one can remember it, pronounce it, spell it, search for it, or recall what it means. This also implies that no one can discover, remember, find, or investigate the project itself, at least not easily. This is a Bad Thing. How would you fix it, or prevent it in the first place?

Okay, the name of this mystery project is... *drumroll*... Iaijutsu

Behold, a case study in doing nearly everything wrong in naming a project. :) I hope this will be educational.

Problem #1: I've told you the name but you still don't know what it is. The name is so creative that is has almost NO connection to the project itself. Why did I pick it then? Well, Iaijutsu is the name of a Japanese sword art known for striking on the draw from any stance or state of readiness. I love the connotations that has for my project, which is an object-oriented web content management and application development framework, written in Perl. (So: swift... any state of readiness... application development for rapid development from a framework of reusable classes... Iaijutsu.) Like I said, it sounded good at the time.

Well, that wouldn't be so bad-- there are plenty of projects whose names have little to do directly with the project. (ie. Apache, Enlightenment, and Zope) This brings me to...

Problem #2: I've told you the name and you'll have forgotten it by tomorrow. This name is so creative that it's from another language (Japanese), and not even a word commonly used in English from that language (like, oh say, sushi). On top of that, it's fairly awkward to spell for many people and even harder to pronounce. So, you might remember that I have a project, and you might even remember what it does, but you'll never find it. And you'll be more likely to forget it -- as names are one of the best tools for retaining long-term memories. (Heard in EFNet #perl, <q[merlyn]> Oh, you're working on the *mumble* project! Where's that at?)

With a memorable or comfortable name, a project at least stands a chance of anchoring itself in people's minds, and then providing a handle through which those minds can find, investigate, and think about the project. There are entire textbooks in cognitive science devoted to names and this chunking of concepts and memory.

Was thinking that I'd have more than just two mistakes to admit, but they're big ones. They may sound trivial, but the simple phrasing can hide a lot of complexity. Naming can be serious business! :) (see: The Name Game) Hell, just on a whim, I was looking up naming services after reading that Salon.com story, and found this company and what they seriously presented as a free instant online naming service.

So, it seems any successful name for an Open Source project (or any project, for that matter) has to solve the above two problems. To some extent, when I tell you the name of my project, it should communicate a bit of mnemonic information about my project. You should know a bit about it just by hearing the name. Or, that meaning should only be one or two sentences away in explanation. And, that name has to be easily spelled, pronounced, and remembered so that others can search for the project, talk about the project, think about the project.

But, you can see how well I've solved the problems. :) I'll stop writing and see what you guys have to say about it!

(But I still think Iaijutsu is a clever name!)

grep (something) /usr/dict/words worked for me., posted 13 Apr 2000 at 07:30 UTC by sethcohn » (Master)

I think Samba did it right, so I followed that lead. I wanted to acknowledge the Linuxcare BBC since I'm using it as a starting point. But I can't use Linuxcare, and don't want to use Bootable Business Card (since it might not always end up Business Card either). So, I said Ok, LBBC, that gives me what?

The only thing in /usr/dict/words with a pattern match to .*l.*b.*b.*c.* was Lubbock. Good a name as any. Has some nice theme ideas. I would never have picked that as a name in any conscious way, but it works.

Good names come in odd ways, I say don't think too much.

Playing scrabble helps too. Letter shuffling is always interesting.

If I had to suggest a new name, how about Pocus? Perl object classes used swiftly (using swords?). Images of Hocus Pocus, which is the fast generator you want to convey. Simple, but memorable. ("Hey, you see the new version of Pocus?") Quick searches of Freshmeat, Google and Yahoo didn't turn up any Pocus software, so it's not taken. Just a suggestion off the top of my head. Take it or leave it, it's a freebie. Not sure you are looking for a new name, can't tell from what you wrote.

Too clever for our own good..., posted 13 Apr 2000 at 09:19 UTC by Denny » (Journeyer)

I am just starting a project (a GNOME typing tutor) and I was busy trying to think of a clever, witty, pun-based name, maybe something related to Mavis Beacon with a G at the front, etc... then my girlfriend said "Call it Fast Fingers".

So I did, because it was a much better name than anything I would ever have come up with whilst trying to be 'clever'...


Other Japanese names, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 11:44 UTC by scottyo » (Apprentice)

Actually, sushi wouldn't be bad ;) But if you wanted to retain the "fast slice and dice" aspect of your project, how about ginsu.

(I didn't look these up to see if they were in use...)

Internet search is your friend, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 13:08 UTC by jop » (Journeyer)

After choosing a name be sure to run it through Altavista/Google/Freshmeat/YourFavoriteEngineHere along with some keywords and see what pops up. It often is an enlightening experience. Remember how many Java-related tools had the same coffee-related names and later had to change...

The Name of a Thing, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 17:32 UTC by Ankh » (Master)

I had the same problem with lq-text, an unmemorably named text retrieval package. I was working for a company whose products all began with nx-,in 1989, and got permission to develop a publicly available text retrieval package that they could resell as nx-text. They never sold it, as far as I know, but that's another story. Someone (Twitch) suggested calling it "gimme", which I quite like.

When I wanted to include an Iajitsu screen shot in my book, I had to ask deus_x for it, and I've had to check the name of the project and fix typos I don't know how many times. But I know no Japanese.

Although "grep" derives from g/re/p, grep is an Old English word meaning a pipe or sewer, very appropriately. It is short and easy to remember, and that's partly because it uses English/Germanic sounds. Avoid words with vowel sequences not commonly found in English. Of course, that doesn't help people for whom English isn't a first language. Spanish and Italian speakers will thank you if you don't have long consonant clusters. The Corba/bonobo tutorial refers to _lenght [sic] everywhere, and without checking the source, I genuinely don't know if that's a typo in the code generator being faithfully documented, or is because the writer was Spanish (say) and found _length a difficult word to pronounce. I don't mean to pick on the writers of that document, but rather to illustrate that it's very difficult to find a word that's easy for everyone to remember. If you do find such a word, it's probably already in use.

I've just typed a list of over 5,000 16th Century British place names, like "Munnithe gader" and "Mynchinbbocland", "Shefefeld" and "LLannuairuehan". Many of these became simplified over time, and you can see why. (LLannuairuehan is in Wales though, where they have different ideas about spelling. But I digress). There are companies specialising in finding names for products and corporations. No doubt they gave us Trillium, showing you need more than a name.

I once wanted to start a company called Mediocre Systems, whose slogan would be Why pay more for something better than you need? Not something likely to succeed in North America.

Is there a registry for open source project names anywhere? Maybe I should start one. But what should I call it?

Why Japanese? :), posted 13 Apr 2000 at 17:50 UTC by tigert » (Master)

What is it with everyone always using japanese as a resource for weird names?

Finnish will do just as well. We have invaluable words like

  • lude (a small pest insect)
  • limanuljaska (a mushroom, edible)
  • lume ("fake"), and the unforgettable
  • sianpaeaesyltty (traditional finnish food involving the head of a pig (dead), the umlaut letters "√§" converted to "ae" to preserve clarity for international readers)
  • simppu (a small freshwater fish)

Wouldnt it be awesome to call your new project, a funky nerd-food recipe server limanuljaskad! (purely imaginative example)

Imagine the joy of using that name instead of the traditional approach: fnefrd!

/etc/init.d/limanuljaskad start

Imagine the feeling when you start your program! It takes a 1337 hax0r to type that right! Let this be the end of cryptic unix program names! :^)

The Name Game, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 18:45 UTC by imp » (Master)

In several startups I've been at, we've had trouble playing the name game. ObjectBuilder (yes, the one released years ago for Linux) started out life as sproto, then was renamed to uib. When it was finally renamed to ObjectBuilder, we kept the program name of uib because there were just too many places to change.

The best lesson I learned from this was that naming needs to be simple. We had toyed with the idea of calling the builder DRUID (Done Right User Interface Developer) and many other complex names. In the end, ObjectBuilder was excellent in its simplicity.

I don't have any name suggestions at hand for the current program, but wanted to share this. Naming is a lot harder than it is at first blush.

Mass reply ATTACK!, posted 14 Apr 2000 at 00:06 UTC by deusx » (Journeyer)

sethcohn & denny: I've actually played the grep /usr/dict/words game before, with a Java IRC client I'd written. I called it InteRloCutor. I thought it was witty too. (See a trend? I can't stand picking a straightforward name.) Fortunately, this one was a bit more memorable. :) I think I do need to follow your advice of not thinking too much.

scottyo & (sorta) jop: I like ginsu. It would be memorable, but as jop points out in a different vein-- you need to watch out for name collision. In this case, I'd be stepping on the toes of a trademark (shudder). I know this was just a quick suggestion, but it's another concern to have in mind when picking a name.

Ankh: You demonstrate the awkwardness of the name right in your reply: "Iajitsu"

The name is "Iaijutsu". :) That's not a complaint or a slight toward you-- it's a problem with the name. You don't know Japanese, nor should you just to remember the name of my !@#$% project.

And an Open Source registry of names, maybe even evolving into a naming assistance service, would be very cool. It probably sounds like I'm over-thinking and overstating this naming thing, but it's hitting me very hard now. I have a project on the cusp of another major release, and potentially recieving official funding at my day job, and the name might hinder both.

(As for a name for the registry, how about "True Names"? Then again, you may want to take my suggestions with a grain of salt knowing my naming tradition. :) )

tigert: Why Japanese? Because Iaijutsu was born at NinjaCode.com, an under- construction resource for web developers intended to be a mutant cross- breed of Slashdot, Advogato, Webmonkey.com, and Builder.com. In this case, I was trying to capture the theme and culture of the site underdevelopment, which will have a bit of Tokyo-pop flavor and campy Ninja movie theme. However, the site is intended for English speakers, so name may have stepped out of bounds. :)

imp: At least I'm not the only one who thinks this naming thing can be rough. :) And, you bring up a point I forgot to mention in the article: The legacy and momentum of a name chosen at the beginning of a project.

What does renaming my project mean? Well, all of my project mailing lists have 'iaijutsu' in their addresses. My SourceForge.net project is named 'iaijutsu'. Also, my CVS repository and all of the source files have the name embedded in them.

So, no problem, I'll just have to convince the dozen or two subscribers on my lists to all migrate to a new set of lists. And abandon my SourceForge.net project and start a new one, because the current design of that site application seems to hate renaming and deleting things. Oh, and CVS hates deletions too, as renaming files and directories put me in danger of basically starting over again with my changelogs and revision control.

So, like I said, I did just about everything wrong with this name. The project is really cool, but you'll never remember the name (which might be appropriate for a ninja, but not a project I'm hoping you'll help with.)


And watch out for freudian issues.., posted 14 Apr 2000 at 07:10 UTC by caolan » (Master)

Couple of years ago I put together a netscape plugin which fakes real plugins by saving the data and starting a real application, which if an X app gets relocated into the plugin space in the browser. Technique's called swallowing, so I called it XSwallow, it was pointed out to me months later that to some people this is a very suggestive name, promising some sort of x rated action.


A matter of requirements analysis., posted 14 Apr 2000 at 09:32 UTC by starshine » (Journeyer)

It may sound rather like throwing everything in a melting pot and then trying to see if it comes out stew, but I think it will help anyway. Let's see, you forgot on the first pass

  • pronounceable
  • memorable to English speakers
but you definitely want (desirements analysis?)
  • martial arts / readiness / efficiency
  • something that implies japanese style, because of ninjacode.

It turns out that with the popularity of some of the martial arts, anime, and the like, some contstructs have become modifier memes in English, and are beginning to be treated like other prefixes and suffixes. So perhaps you can have fun with <meta> Fu, <meta> Chi, or (hey, you're the one who mentioned sushi) <meta> Maki or Nigiri or Yaki.

ScriptFu is taken, GIMP uses that. And maybe you don't want the result to sound so generic people still can't figure out what the project is, either, so Perl Chi is probably out. Roll it out on the tongue and see if it can be said with enthusiasm, or comes out all wrong. WebzineFu! ForumMaki! (it wraps up everything in a yummy fashion? oops, lost the martial art effect. And people might start calling it spider roll.) WebZinsu! (it slizes, it dizes, it puts together webzites. But wait, there's more.) To help something be pronounceable it really helps if it's only one or two syllables, or it has memorable units which are.

As for the problem of renaming, maybe you just want to take linguistic laziness and leave it Jutsu. Yeah, that isn't a whole japanese word, but until someone gives your cool back end/middleware gadget some content, they haven't got a whole website, either. At least, it chops off the hard to spell part, but it's close enough that CVS ought to be able to put up with it inside of files. if you've got iaijutsu.c to change to main.c I can't help you there.

Definitely, if you're going to change it at all, early is better than late. The creat system call is tribute to that. Do whatever it is you're going to do now, while you can still actually count your users.

kuro5hin is not japanese. :-), posted 14 Apr 2000 at 16:09 UTC by kuro5hin » (Master)

Hmmm, I seem to be part of a trend here. The thing that (I think) works about kuro5hin is that once you find out what it means (from the faq), it's not that hard to remember, since it is basically a phonetically-spelled English word. I named my site that because I didn't really care (at the time) whether people knew about it or not, and that was a name I associated with myself. Now I do care that people know about it, but I get so much amusement out of watching people go from "what's a coo-roh-five-hin???" to treating it like any other word, that I couldn't bear to change.

Naming stuff, though, is difficult and usually unfun. It either comes to you in a flash, or it is an eternal grind and you're never quite happy with the name you end up with. I'd say, name it what you want to, and if it's good enough, people will remember it. "Advogato" for example. Which is not nearly as easy to say as it looks like it would be. I always stutter saying it-- "Avo... advo... gato."

Easy for one, Hard for another, posted 15 Apr 2000 at 05:12 UTC by Ankh » (Master)

Actually I find Kirushin/Kuroshin/Koru5h1n/whatever impossibly to remember exactly.

That might be because I have had very little exposure to Japanese words or culture, much less than someone from California (say), or someone who has seen those animé things on the television, perhaps.

When you use a word or phrase that borrows from multiple languages, you risk losing people who find one or other language difficult.

no, no... it's NOT japanese, posted 15 Apr 2000 at 07:25 UTC by kuro5hin » (Master)

Slight misread, I think-- kuro5hin is *NOT* actually at all japanese-derived. It sounds kinda japanese, and it even potentially could be meaningful in japanese, but it's origin was just a dumb phonetically-spelled pun on my name (rusty == rust == corrosion == kuro5hin). And I bet I have had less exposure to Japanese culture than you. I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. Not exactly a hotbed of Asian activity. Anyway, it's pronounced "corrosion", but it's best reached by bookmark. :-)

Sushi, posted 16 Apr 2000 at 04:41 UTC by Skud » (Master)

As deusx knows (or at least, I told him on IRC, and he may or may not remember) someone at Netizen is actually working on a thing called "Sushi". It's not dissimilar to Iajutsu, in that it's an object oriented mod_perlish thing. In fact, it's called "Sushi" because it's a wrapper for objects.

Boom boom.

And another thing... (re ginsu), posted 16 Apr 2000 at 06:40 UTC by Skud » (Master)

Trademarks are only granted for particular fields. So the "ginsu" trademark probably applies to the category of kitchenware or something. Actually, it's probably a "hardware tools, including bladed tools, yadda yadda" category. So anyway, you could safely call a piece of software "ginsu" without treading on their toes.

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