On The Naming of Things

by Simon Cozens

As in certain cults it is possible to kill a process if you know its
true name.

-- Ken Thompson and Dennis M. Ritchie

I've been thinking recently about what accounts for the HREF="http://www.cpan.org/">CPAN's success; well, that's not quite
true. I've been trying to work out what accounts for the HREF="http://www.ruby-lang.org/en/raa.html">Ruby Application
Archive and Python's Vaults
of Parnassus
comparative failure.

There are many reasons. First, there's a clear distinction in CPAN
between libraries and applications; the RAA the Vaults don't have such a
thing. But I've come to the conclusion that a major factor, and one
which applies both to collections of software such as those we're
looking at and the development world in general, is the way that
libraries and aplications are named. (To be fair, Ruby is getting better
at this and beginning to solve the problem the Perl way.)

I'd like to give a couple of principles for naming software.

  • Definitive names discourage wheel reinvention

  • Perl's modules are generally given simple, definitive names. If I
    want an XML parser, I head for XML::Parser. It's that
    simple. (Of course, if it's not that simple, I head for
    XML::Simple which is.)
    If I want to write a module for parsing XML and I know that
    XML::Parser exists, I'm forced to choose a name which
    correctly denotes what sets my parser apart; I have to do something
    new, and hence I'm not reinventing the wheel.

  • Descriptive names are best for libraries

  • There's a temptation to make up cutesy names for software projects.
    However, when it comes to libraries, this is more of a hindrance
    than a help. When I see a module called XML::Parser I
    know exactly what it does. It doesn't require any more description.
    If, on the other hand, it had a cutesy name - Expat - I
    would have no idea. Similarly, good naming helps me quickly locate
    the library I need. If I'm writing C code to deal with Unicode, I'd
    look for a libunicode. And behold, there is indeed a
    libunicode which does what I want and I need look no
    further. That would not have been quite so easy if it had been
    called libgeoff. Cutesy acronyms don't help either -
    you might know that libgail is the GNOME Accessibility
    Implementation Library, but at first sight, that might have been
    called libgeoff too. Why not, say,
    libaccess, or libgaccess if you must have
    the g for GNOME.

  • End-user projects can have non-descriptive names

  • There is a place for cute naming, and that's in applications and
    other end-user projects; this is because there's more space for
    competition. You'd never get away with calling a web browser
    "webbrowser", so "Mozilla" is as good a name as any. However, if
    you're building that as a Perl module, then
    Web::Browser (or Tk::WebBrowser) would be
    just fine. This should remind you that some things that you think
    are applications can turn out to be libraries, and vice versa -
    consider spamassassin as an example. Thankfully, that has both a
    catchy and a descriptive name, so turns out to work very well as
    both a library and an end-user tool.

Shamans have long known the value of the correct and definitive
naming of things; programmers of libraries and modules would do well to
rediscover it.