What’s in a name?

Many years ago, I was helping a local church with a project which involved a database of the participating parishioners. This was stored in the columns of a spreadsheet, and occasionally printed out strange things in the lists of names – like ‘1/6’, or ‘1/5/05’. Most bizarre.

I eventually uncovered the problem: one of the members of the congregation was named ‘June’. Another was called ‘May’. And when they had been imported into the spreadsheet, it was being far too clever for its own good! I found out just before adding a nice lady whose name was ‘April’…

Even my simple double-barrelled surname causes some problems: a surprising number of systems can’t cope with hyphenated names. For a while I seemed to be undergoing a lot of security checks at airports, which one member of staff suggested might be because my passport had a hyphen in my name, but the airline systems invariably did not, so I never matched up as expected. The US Patent Office gets similarly confused, and in some search engines, a ‘minus’ indicates an exclusion, so if you search for ‘Stafford-Fraser’ you are guaranteed never to get me because I have a ‘Fraser’ in my name. Sigh. I don’t envy those who have names with more complicated punctuation…

Unusual initials, while general handy, also have their downsides. I could never get a good personalised license plate for my car, for example, because Qs are deemed to be too easily confused with Os or zeroes in the UK and are not allowed (except in a few very specific circumstances). My friend Brian Robinson told me about an occasion when his son Xavier was excluded from something at school, if I remember correctly, because they mistook his initial, ‘X’, as a cross indicating he was crossed off the list!

So it’s appropriate that it was Brian who forwarded a Wired article by someone with a problem I hadn’t previously considered: his surname causes much more confusion for many computer systems than mine, because his name is Christopher Null.

1 Comment

I asked Sarah if we could consider “FirstName” before Iris’s name was chosen!

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