The Power of Names

13 minute read

I have found people have a tendency to discount or ignore the important role of having names for things in human thinking. This can lead to neglecting or not using them and thereby causing sloppy thinking, confusion, inefficiencies, and poor decisions. Today I want to counteract this tendency by showing some examples of how important they are.

Content Note: This post discusses sexual attraction as part of one of the examples. I don’t think there’s anything NSFW about it, but since this is probably not a topic you expected to see discussed on a blog about technology in a post about naming things, I figure it won’t hurt to point it out!

Understanding Ourselves Using Names

Not so long ago I figured out that I’m demisexual. Now you’re probably asking what that means; despite estimates suggesting about one in a hundred people are somewhere on the asexual spectrum (of which demisexuality is a part), most people have never even heard of it. Demisexuality is actually a remarkably complicated topic, but so as not to derail this post before it’s even started, the CliffsNotes version goes like this: most of the time, demi people are not sexually attracted to anyone, and we aren’t attracted to people based only on their physical appearance. However, once we form something of an emotional connection with a person, often through time spent together in a platonic friendship, we will occasionally start to feel attraction to them or even fall helplessly in love, just like anyone else.

That means we never spot someone cute on the other side of the dance floor and want to sleep with them based on their looks; many of us wouldn’t even be interested in getting to know them. We’re unlikely to flirt with strangers; it feels uncomfortable and pointless. Many of us are repelled by the idea of casual sex, and even those who aren’t rarely enjoy it much. We don’t have “celebrity crushes” and find the idea bizarre (how are you supposed to have a crush on someone you don’t know?). A disproportionate number of us are into our twenties or later before we start dating; since much of the time single demi people won’t know anyone at all they’re attracted to (I was in college before I was attracted to somebody for the first time!), we don’t have a lot of options, and much of the motivation other people have is missing.

This might sound like demi people are just excessively romantic or prudish or fussy, but those things are about how people choose to filter and react to feelings of attraction they have; demi people just don’t have those feelings except under exactly the right circumstances. And while the personality traits that lead to being romantic or prudish may not be easy to change, the decisions people make because of those traits are free choices; being demisexual is not a choice.

I’ll come back to this thread in just a moment, but I have a question for you in the meantime. Have you ever had some weird problem with your body or mind and then eventually gotten a diagnosis from a doctor? How did that diagnosis make you feel?

The feeling most people get is great relief, especially if they’ve had the problem for weeks or months or even years. The problem doesn’t have to be fixed to yield this feeling of relief – in fact, it could just as well be an incurable condition! Just knowing what you’re dealing with is comforting, and particularly knowing that what you have is a thing: it’s been identified before, other people have it too, and there are established treatments and case studies that your doctor can draw on to help you figure out how to deal with the problem.

Conversely, not having a diagnosis makes it virtually impossible for you and your doctor to proceed in deciding how to handle your health problem. Not only are you unable to draw on past experience in other people because you can’t identify what set of past experiences to look at, it’s hard to even figure out what to look at in yourself. Say today you’re having cramps; is that because of your weird, undiagnosed illness? Or you could have symptoms for years without recognizing that anything’s wrong because they’re happening to you so often you get used to them. Once you’re diagnosed with X condition, suddenly you can see all kinds of things you couldn’t see before, like symptoms you’ve been ignoring. But you needed a name to get there.

While demisexuality is not pathological (and I don’t like or dislike it – it’s just a neutral part of who I am, like being male or Caucasian or needing size-eleven shoes), that’s just about the same feeling I got when I heard about it for the first time and realized it was me. Over the next week or so more and more things started to click into place and suddenly everything that had happened in the last ten years of my life made way more sense than it had before. Not only that, but now that I had the name demisexual, I could find other people with the same experiences. Talking with them is like meeting someone who’s interested in a totally obscure topic I’m into that nobody else ever cares about or understands, only the topic is these parts of my life that always confused me or made me feel weird before.

Yet among the few people who encounter them, there is a shocking amount of distaste for the word demisexual and other words used by people in the asexual community. It seems to this crowd like gender and sexuality terms are proliferating wildly out of control and are completely pointless. Some people see them as limiting (because you’re not going to have exactly the same experience as someone else who identifies with that term) and ask why everyone can’t just let their sexuality be what it is without trying to give it names.

If you still find yourself in this boat after reading my experience, think about an experience we all have: emotions. It seems reasonable to suppose that no two emotions are exactly the same, so our attempts to describe them will never be perfect, but it would be pretty silly to say that on that account we should just stop using words to describe them. For one, we would have to try to infer what other people were feeling instead of being able to talk about it and get at least a general idea, which would be a wonderful recipe for misunderstandings and ruined relationships! For another, most of us don’t think only in feelings; we think in words too, and if we can’t translate those feelings into words – and vice versa – we have a much harder time thinking about them because we can only engage with them on one of our mental levels. (Ever had a feeling so unusual or transcendent that you couldn’t describe it? It’s incredibly frustrating for exactly that reason.) Guess what? This is precisely why asexual-spectrum people have these words.

I once heard someone suggest that “not needing labels is a privilege.” I think there’s something to this, for a simple reason: when your preferences and behaviors and needs of a particular type match those of most everyone and everything around you, you often don’t think about them. It’s only when they differ that you start noticing: you have to pay attention to be sure you don’t eat a food that makes you sick, or you feel left out when people discuss a topic you don’t care about. If you never seriously think about something (e.g., your sexuality), you don’t need many words related to that topic. But if you have to spend time thinking about it to have any clue how you’re different than the people around you and how you should adapt to living in a society where most people are different than you, that’s just as hard to do without a vocabulary as understanding a disease.

Understanding Other Topics Using Names

As a matter of fact, having appropriate vocabulary is critical for a nuanced understanding of any topic at all, and a precise, widely accepted vocabulary on the topic makes the difference between a clueless novice and someone well on their way to becoming competent. Lack of vocabulary is a major factor behind the Paradox of Documentation and a major challenge to learning the basics of any topic; when a text or teacher has to stop to introduce new terms in great detail, rather than simply using them, people have to work at a much lower level of abstraction and thus can’t take in as much information at once.

It’s worth pointing out that along with names come classifications; some of the benefits I have attributed and will attribute to names seem more to be features of classifying things into groups than naming them. However, the way human beings use language, these two things are essentially inextricable; especially when dealing with more abstract concepts, we group things by giving the same name to a series of related things, and we name things by putting them into groups that go with that name.

Here are a few examples that don’t have to do with studying or thinking about people, as we discussed in the previous section.


If you’re walking through the woods and you’ve never studied such things, everything looks like a tree, or a purple flower, or a small bird. If you start to learn the names and identifying features of each species, though, suddenly the whole forest feels like a different place. Everything appears far more complex and interesting. You can find other plants or animals you would never have noticed before because you know they tend to appear together. You can tell how healthy an area is or what kinds of natural events have recently happened by what species are present and where. And you feel like you understand at least a little bit about the place.


Chess openings describe the initial series of moves made in a chess game. The first few moves have an enormous influence on what kinds of tactics will play well in the remainder of the game, and most people play some of these types of games much better than others, so it’s important for players to be able to identify where the game is going both to nudge it in a direction they prefer and to know how best to play after the opening phases are over. Naming and describing the types of openings makes them much easier to identify.

Studies have shown that one of the key factors in becoming a chess expert is learning to see the board as complete positions consisting of various patterns rather than as individual pieces. Openings are an even higher level of abstraction.

Software patterns

Perhaps the best-known book in the entire software field is Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (which is such an insipid mouthful that everyone calls it “Gang of Four” after the four authors). Over 400 or so pages, the book names and describes in detail 23 common “patterns” or ways of using objects in a program. Having these patterns in your head (or any other similar identified patterns: there is nothing magical about this book’s patterns besides how well-known they are) makes it easy to spot certain large-scale design problems and their possible solutions. I was recently looking through some old code and went, “Oh, this should be using the Singleton pattern!” As a result of not recognizing at the time I wrote it that this pattern was its own thing and that it was essentially what I was writing, I had gone and designed this part of the code in an ugly, ad-hoc way. Now it’s obvious both what I did poorly and how I can fix it.

Domain-specific languages (DSLs)

DSLs in computer programming involve designing not just words but entire (simple) languages designed for comfortable, concise expression of ideas about a specific topic or for a specific purpose. The language can stand on its own or be layered on top of another language, where statements in the base language are all valid but additional syntax can be used as well. For instance, the Pester DSL, built on top of PowerShell, defines the terms Describe, It, and Should (and sundry elements of syntax, like -Be), which do not normally exist in PowerShell, and thus lets a programmer test her software like this:

Describe "The Say-Hello function" {
    It "says hello to a user" {
        Say-Hello "Soren" | Should -Be "Hello Soren!"
    It "says oops if the user’s name isn’t provided" {
        Say-Hello | Should -Be "Oops!"

Notice that this reads almost like English and precisely describes what we want to test along with the code that will test it. Without the DSL, we’d have to be much less straightforward, using a language suited for giving the computer general instructions rather than ones specifically for testing software. That might look something like this (this version is intentionally somewhat more verbose than it would have to be so it aligns closely with the example above):

Write-Output "Now testing Say-Hello."

Write-Output "Saying hello to the user..."
$hello1 = Say-Hello "Soren"
if ($hello1 -eq "Hello Soren!") {
    Write-Output "OK"
} else {
    Write-Output "Failed"

Write-Output "Checking to be sure oops is said if the user doesn't provide a name..."
$hello2 = Say-Hello
if ($hello2 -eq "Oops!") {
    Write-Output "OK"
} else {
    Write-Output "Failed"

See how much harder that is to understand? A well-designed DSL is easy and satisfying to use and beautifully readable.

How Do We Get the Most from Names?

  • Learn the names of things you’re interested in. When you learn a field’s vocabulary, you are learning about the most important concepts in that field, the ones that were once upon a time identified by someone and have been useful enough to become accepted and used by everyone else. (And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell other people something they want to think about doesn’t deserve a name.)

  • When you think you’ve identified a concept or category of your own, give it a name. Even if nobody else ever sees your name, it helps to have one for yourself: now you can think about the whole thing as a unit and separate related but different things into different categories. We all do better thinking when we have names for the things we’re thinking about.

In case you’re interested in learning more about demisexuality, check out one of my favorite little corners of the internet, /r/demisexuality. Or feel free to send me an email, as with anything else you read about on this site!