Naming names

September 23, 2010

This post is not directly on technical writing or technical communication, but it IS to do with user experience.

One of my interests is researching my family tree, and one of my husband’s interests is researching song writers and musicians and their pedigrees (who they played with and when, who’s listed on the credits for an album, etc.). So we both deal with names and dates — and the frustrations of both.

I’ve blogged before about issues with confusing dates, but this time it’s about confusing names.

When there’s no clear column name in a table or some other designator (like upper case) for a name part, how do you decipher if ‘Michael James’ and ‘James Michael’ are the same person — or two different people? Many databases just populate the web table with the individual names, so there’s not even the old convention of separating the ‘last/first name’ order with a comma (e.g. ‘James, Michael’ clearly indicates that ‘James’ is the last name). And conversely, assuming the order to be ‘first/last name’ if there’s no comma (e.g. ‘Michael James’).

That ‘Michael James’/’James Michael’ situation is a dilemma. As my husband discovered, in just one online music database this person is listed BOTH ways in a single album’s credits. Add other databases to the mix and you can see that tracking that person’s works is difficult.

On the genealogical side, I’ve come to realize that an unusual name is a real bonus. Much as I scoffed at celebrity child names like ‘Dweezil’, ‘Moon Unit’, ‘Peaches’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Sunday’, later generations of genealogical researchers will thank their parents! An unusual name is SO much easier to find.

Many previous generations in my family happily named their children after themselves or their brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, parents or grandparents. As a result, despite having a not-so-common surname, I have many many generations of ‘Williams’ and ‘Thomases’ and ‘Henrys’ with nothing to clearly differentiate them. Similarly, in the one family I have found ‘Eliza’ as the mother, a daughter ‘Elizabeth Mary’ who died in infancy, a daughter born some years later and also called ‘Elizabeth Mary’, and a daughter ‘Eliza’. Talk about confusing!

This repeat naming thing is not limited to earlier centuries — my husband’s parents had boy who was stillborn. They named him ‘Bradley Jon’. After two more boys, they had another boy — and named him ‘Bradley Jon’ too. They must’ve liked the name… But their decision will throw up a potential dilemma for future genealogists researching the family as most people assume that each child in a family has a unique name (well, except for George Foreman who named ALL his sons ‘George Foreman’!).

In some of my genealogical research, I’ve hit little pots of gold when I’ve discovered an ancestor with an unusual (well, unusual for our family anyway) first name or middle name. Finding just one ‘Isaac’ and one ‘Emmanuel’ in my family tree opened up a rich vein of ancestral data. And the of the 28 ‘Charles’ we can identify in my family tree, the one who had the middle name of ‘Colston’ was just as fruitful.

Bottom line:

  • If you’re designing databases for displaying names on websites or in printed material, make it clear to the user which part of the name is which by using column header labels (e.g. First Name, Last Name), or by using all upper case for the last name.
  • If you’re thinking of naming your child after yourself or your spouse, or a close member of your family, either don’t do it, or, add an unusual middle name so that later generations can clearly distinguish your child from any others in the world who have the same first and last name. The kid may hate their middle name (do any kids like their names??), but a genealogical researcher will love you for it. This is one area where I believe consistency is NOT good!


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