The power of names

The power of names is really interesting to me. Sometimes it seems like concepts that previously were muddled become much more simple to understand once you give it a unique set of phonemes that others can reference.

I'll give an example from work recently. A few weeks ago I was given an assignment that was rather broad in scope. It was unclear (and is still unclear, as of this writing) exactly what the eventual product will look like. But we needed some kind of framing to help us grapple with the complexity.

I decided to make something up. I roughly bucketed the 4 types of workflows that I thought we would want to support, and I named each one.

What happened next somewhat surprised me. Not only was my method of categorizing rapidly spreading around the organization, but the paradigm with which I used to make them spread too. It was like I had performed inception on an entire organization, just by giving something a unique name and definition.

A lot of other things now begin to lock into place. For instance, why do medical conditions seem to be fractally deep? It feels like there are new "types of types of " cancer every year. Not because more people are diagnosed, but because by attaching a name to a specific set of data, we can grapple with it more easily and, hopefully, find patterns.

What about religion or philosophy? There's nothing more common than an academic philosopher taking a perfectly ordinary concept and trying to name it. Even the name "God" itself is just a bucket of ideas which are not only difficult to express, but some argue can only be felt or sensed, rather than measured.

In a way, a name is merely a pointer to an idea in the same way that pointers can tie to arbitrarily large and complex objects in computer systems. But why use a name? The same reason you would want to use a pointer. It's easier and cheaper to pass it around, and everyone can immediately understand what it means just by dereferencing. Names as a new form of primitive can be combined and understood much more deeply, at least by our limited human minds.