Lawyers, bad jokes and typos: how not to name your software

When you’re writing software you’ll find yourself naming every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air: projects, classes, functions, and variables. There are many ways to fail at naming projects, and when you do the costs of a bad name can haunt you for years.

To help you avoid these problems, let me share some of bad naming schemes I have been responsible for, observed, or had inflicted on me. You can do better.

Five naming schemes to avoid

They’re gonna try to take it

Rule #1: don’t give your software the same name as a heavy metal band, or more broadly anyone who can afford to have a lawyer on retainer.

Long ago, the open source Twisted project had a sub-package for managing other subprocesses. Twisted’s main package is called twisted, and the author decided to call this package twisted.sister. This was a mistake.

One day my company, which advertised Twisted consulting services, received a cease and desist letter from the lawyers of the band Twisted Sister. They indicated that Twisted’s use of the name Twisted Sister was a violation of the band’s intellectual property, demanded we stop immediately, after which they wanted to discuss damages. Since my company didn’t actually own Twisted this was a little confusing, but I passed this on to the project.

The project wrote the lawyers explaining that Twisted was run by hobbyists, just so it was clear there was no money to be had. Twisted also changed the package name from twisted.sister to twisted.sibling: none of us believed the lawyers’ claim had any validity, but no one wanted to deal with the hassle of fighting them.

A subject of ridicule

Rule #2: don’t pick a name that will allow people to make bad jokes about you.

Continuing with the travails of the Twisted project, naming the project “Twisted” was a mistake. Python developers have, until recent years, not been very comfortable with asynchronous programming, and Twisted is an async framework. Unfortunately, having a name with negative connotations meant this discomfort was verbalized in a way that associated it with the project.

“Twisted” led people to say things like “Twisted is so twisted,” over and over and over again. Other async libraries for Python, like asyncore or Tornado, had neutral names and didn’t suffer from this problem.

Bad metaphors

Rule #3: if you’re going to use an extended metaphor, pick one that makes sense.

Continuing to pick on Twisted yet again (sorry!), one of Twisted’s packages is a remote method invocation library, similar to Java RMI. The package is called twisted.spread, the wire format is twisted.spread.banana, the serialization layer is twisted.spread.jelly, and the protocol itself is twisted.spread.pb.

This naming scheme, based on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, has a number of problems. To begin with, PB&J is very American, and software is international. As a child and American emigrant living in a different country, the peanut butter and banana sandwiches my mother made led to ridicule by my friends.

Minor personal traumas aside, this naming scheme has no relation to what the software actually does. Silliness is a fine thing, but names should also be informative. The Homebrew project almost falls into this trap, with formulas and taps and casks and whatnot. But while the metaphor is a little unstable on its feet, it’s not quite drunk enough to completely fall over.

Typos

Rule #4: avoid names with common typos.

One of my software projects is named Crochet. Other people—and I make this typo too, to be fair—will mistakenly write “crotchet” instead, which the dictionary describes as “a perverse fancy; a whim which takes possession of the mind; a conceit.”

Bonus advice: you may wish to avoid whims or conceits when naming your software projects.

I can’t even

Rule #5: avoid facepalms.

I used to work for a company named ClusterHQ, and our initial product was named Flocker. When the company shut down the CEO wrote a blog post titled ClusterF**ed.

Why you shouldn’t listen to my advice

Twisted has many users, from individuals to massive corporations. My own project, Crochet, has a decent number. ClusterHQ shut down for reasons that had nothing to do with its name. So it’s not clear any of this makes a difference.

You should certainly avoid names that confuse your users, and you’ll be happier if you can avoid lawsuits. But if you’re going to be writing software all day, you should enjoy yourself while you do. If your programming language supports Unicode symbols, why not use emoji in your project name?

🙊🙉🙈 has a nice sound to it.

By the way, if you’d like to learn how to avoid my many mistakes, subscribe to my weekly newsletter. Every week I share one of my programming or career mistakes and how you can avoid it.


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