Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Adaptive Naming

Every day we come up against new things. New techniques, new twists on existing techniques, new technologies, new procedures. Many of these things are adaptations of techniques, technologies, and procedures that existed elsewhere first. For example, today I got on the Silver Line to get to work. The Silver Line is a "subway line" here in Boston. It shows up along with the red, green, orange, and blue subway lines on the agency's website, etc. But there's a catch.

This is the Silver Line:

Yup, it's a bus. Now, we have bus lines in Boston, run by the same agency, but those show up in a different place on the website and run on different schedules. So I can say, "you call it a subway, but it's a bus!" all I like, and I will be correct. But I sure won't find the schedule.

This is a case of adaptive naming. I call it a subway because that is the name that has been chosen for it. It's technically not a subway - I don't think it goes underground - but "subway" is the commonly accepted term for the Silver Line, and I'll have a lot more luck getting information if I simply bow to that.

Adaptive naming goes on all the time. We call a software development process "kanban" or "lean" even though both those processes come from manufacturing. We talk about "user mode" even though a lot of programs run in that space that aren't explicitly requested by the user (cron, anyone?). The short fact is that there are a whole lot of new things out there and one of the ways we humans cope is by giving them names based on similar things. Thus, "kanban" in software is kind of like "kanban" in manufacturing, and our "silver line" bus is kind of like a subway train. It's not identical, but we've adapted the name.

It's useful to know when you're adapting a name, but don't be afraid of doing so. Similarity and pattern matching have helped humanity for thousands of years, and we can continue that similarity and pattern matching in what we call things, so it can help us understand each other for many years to come.


  1. The Silver Line is accessed underground at South Station.

  2. It's true, but that's practically a parking garage (plus it didn't help make the bus vs train point)! It's also true that the green line is above ground for substantial periods, but since it runs on a track no one thinks twice about calling it a subway. In general the Boston system is a little odd, but I suspect most systems are!