Date: Thu, 13 Jul 2000 20:16:38 -0100
The Fable of the Names
How It All Started
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a small kingdom by the sea, a son was born to a proud father.
This was no ordinary father -- he was, in fact, the king of this small kingdom.
The kingdom, a pleasant, densely forested sort of place, had no special name. It was simply known as "here."
And the king, like everyone else in his kingdom, also had no special, personal name.
He was simply known as "the king" or "your highness" (or "you" or "I" or "hey," depending on who was talking at the time).
The king was enormously proud of his son (his first and only child). The son (known as "the King's son," and later as "I" or "hey") grew quickly and rambled freely through the little kingdom, watching the waves keenly and enjoying the peace and quiet of the land.
It came time for the son's eighteenth birthday.
The king, who was an imaginative and cheerful man, was simply bursting with pride and happiness on the day of his son's birthday (which happened to be a sunny, breezy day).
Suddenly, a wildly creative thought struck the King. "My son needs to be called something special! I should give him a name of his very own as a birthday gift."
So he did. The king announced to the people of his kingdom that his son would from that day forward be known as Prince Hal.
This was a first.
No one in the kingdom had ever had a special name before.
No thing in the kingdom had ever had its own special name before.
Everything had always been known in terms of relationships or location or size or number. Even the king's castle was simply known as "Main Building."
If asked where somebody lived, people would say (for example), "Second house on the fourth street to the left."
And anyone who needed to refer to a particular shop would use the license number issued to the shopkeeper when it opened for business. "43," for example, was a favorite ice cream store.
(By the way, there was never any confusion about all this -- the kingdom was a small and peaceful place.)
So when the king named his son Hal, the people were astonished.
Special names immediately became fashionable.
(So did the narrow-toed shoes with bells that Prince Hal was wearing on his birthday, but they lost popularity rapidly when the people discovered how uncomfortable they really were.)
Suddenly, the people started to give special names to themselves and to all the things around them.
People who had been "I" and "you" or "father" or "my best friend" declared that they were now Penelope or Mildred or Ezekiel.
Birds were given elaborate latinate names.
Merchants' shops (which had been called "second from the right" or "there" or "76" since time immemorial) began to call themselves Best Apples or Fragrant Pies or Wheelbarrows-'N-You.
And the King now called himself King Nominum.
There was an air of joyous discovery in the kingdom (a place briefly known as Eldwhistle-by-the-Sea but later renamed Xuma for marketing purposes).
Naming was in vogue, and everything was going quite well in Xuma. The merchants went racing around putting tags and labels on everything. They named not only their shops but every item in them.
But there were some slight problems with this tagging activity.
One day, the merchant selling "Best Apples" noticed that another merchant down the street had tags on apples that read, simply, "Best." The merchant who had called his shop "Fragrant Pies" was outraged when the baker across town put up a sign saying "Our Pies are Fragrant." Two different merchants started calling their cookies "Creamies." Somehow, independently and simultaneously, it occurred to two restaurants to call their special sandwiches "Teezles."
The merchants went right to King Nominum to complain. The king thought hard about these problems. He tried to consult his son. But Prince Hal was now a few months into his eighteenth year and was more interested in moodily rambling around Xuma than dealing with policy questions.
A solution came to King Nominum. He decided to form a Royal Commission for Naming. The Commission would decide who (or what) could properly bear which names.
The Royal Commission members felt very important.
Not only did they now have names themselves, they could decide who else could have names!
They immediately delegated all of their duties to a Name Bureau and hired clerks to run the operation.
The Name Bureau
The merchants agreed it was high time that a Name Bureau had been formed.
They had discovered that it was now difficult to sell things that didn't have special names. The smart merchants had all printed up little cards that read "Use This Fabulous Fudge Card To Order Your Next Piece of Fudge". Whenever a customer hankered for a piece of fudge, he or she could simply give the Fabulous Fudge card to a messenger, who would immediately retrieve the product from the proper store. Regular merchants who hadn't printed up these product name cards were sunk. (Messengers, by the way, were doing extremely well.)
The merchants lined up politely at the Name Bureau offices to register new special names, and the existing names were duly noted in giant books by the diligent Name Bureau clerks.
The Name Bureau clerks were soon confronted with additional disputes.
One shy merchant was (quietly) angry that his name and address was listed next to his claim to the exclusive use of "Terrific Tomatoes" in the big books kept by the Name Bureau.
Someone else claimed the right to sell "Terrific Chairs" and the Name Bureau clerks had to figure out whether that might confuse the public.
The third merchant tried to claim "Tarrific Chairs," just in case a customer couldn't spell, which didn't seem quite fair to the Name Clerk on duty (but he registered the name anyway).
Merchants became upset when the names they wanted were taken. Defensively, they started to register lots and lots of names to avoid disappointment. The Best Apples merchant (remember him?) stood in front of the Name Bureau clerks and determinedly registered name after name: Best Oranges, Best Pineapples (he didn't even sell pineapples!), and, just to be safe, Good Enough Apples, Okay Apples, Not So Bad Apples... and even Wormy Apples and Best Apples Not.
So, very quickly, the Name Bureau clerks were overwhelmed. The giant registration books became unwieldy, and a junior clerk was crushed when one of them fell on him.
The Royal Commission
While on a seaside corporate retreat (a frequent occurrence), the Royal Commissioners discussed the flurry of activity at the Name Bureau and the desperate, frenzied calls for help from the Name Bureau clerks.
The Royal Commissioners made a decision: they decreed that the Name Bureau could henceforth charge the people a fee for registering any names. And they proclaimed that a Naming Court would be established to decide whether any particular name "conflicted with" any other name.
Mindful of the source of their power, the Royal Commissioners were careful to ensure that a portion of the Name Fee would go to the King's coffers.
"That should do it," they said smugly.
The Name Fee and the Naming Court
The Name Fee did slow down some silly registration activity, for a while. And the Naming Court did quickly resolve disputes about who had the right to register any particular new name, mostly without causing fistfights.
But, one day, a man overheard one of his neighbors complain that the name the neighbor wanted to use for his store -- "GoodBusiness" -- was already taken, and that the Naming Court had ruled that "BetterBusiness" would be confusingly similar (or disparaging -- a recent refinement in the court's doctrine).
"Oh, well," the neighbor sighed. "I'll have to find a different name."
But, as it happened, the listener had registered GoodBusiness himself (just in case). And a novel idea struck him: "Hey, neighbor," he said (using the old language to create a sense of familiarity), "Why don't you buy that name from me?"
The neighbor was stunned. "You can do that?" he asked. "How much?"
A deal was cut. The market was born.
Names were flying from hand to hand. Merchants had trouble keeping up with the need to change all their tags, as each tried to get the very best (apologies to the apple merchant) unique names for their goods. And prices were soaring.
Prince Hal saw all this and looked a little glummer as he tramped around the hills of Xuma.
Meanwhile, some of the merchants were grumbling suspiciously. Every time the Naming Court allowed someone to register a new name like "Best Shoes" (on the ground that there were already so many things called "Best" that no one would think they must all come from the same shop), the "Best Apples" merchant felt he had to buy the name from the registrant -- to "avoid confusion," as the merchant put it. This was getting expensive!
One gloomy day, after a particularly frustrating run of Naming Court decisions (in one of which all new tags with the word "Super" were banned), and following an increase in the Name Fee, a names riot broke out in the town square. Merchants were ripping labels off their neighbors' products and screaming at each other.
The Royal Commissioners, back from their latest retreat, watched in horror.
On one side of the square, a group of teenagers watched the fracas. They noticed that all the tags all the grownups were fighting about were written in black ink. They had a subversive idea. They quickly opened their own Red Tag Name Bureau. It wasn't hard. Some of them had been summer interns in the original Name Bureau and so knew how the books were kept. They claimed they were simply setting up an alternate source of names that wouldn't be plagued with problems.
So now there were plain old "Best Apples" and new, red-tagged "Best Apples".
The original Best Apples merchant immediately demanded the right to register all the red tags that included the word "Best," or any variation thereof, at a discount. The Teezle maker who had been slow to register that tag (in the old, black ink days) demanded that he be given priority (for a red ink tag) over the other merchant who already had that registered name under the old system.
Every member of the Royal Commission was red in the face with outrage. "This must be stopped," they yelled in unison. "There can be only one set of names! Otherwise, all is chaos!"
They turned to King Nominum, who stood in the doorway of his castle looking bewildered and wondering whether his piece of the Name Fee was worth it (and whether the new red-tag brokers would also pay a fee).
"Do something!" the members of the Royal Commission demanded as one.
Meanwhile, Prince Hal watched in sadness from a hillside above the town. Labels fluttered on every piece of his clothing. The uproar from the square was deafening.
"I just can't take this," the Prince said to himself.
Prince Hal's Journey
Prince Hal turned his back on the town and headed into the hills. He walked as fast and as far as he could, away from the noise behind him. His head was down and his gaze was sad.
Hours later, he came to himself and noticed that he was in an unfamiliar and very quiet place.
He was in a forest. There were no labels. No signage. No markers. In fact, no special names of any kind.
Prince Hal looked around him.
He heard only the sound of many birds and the wind in the trees. There were tasty nuts, beautiful flowers, juicy berries and ripening fruit -- all of them entirely unbranded.
A particularly brightly-colored bird flew to a branch near him.
It had no label.
"How can you tell which nuts to eat if they don't have tags?," Hal asked the bird.
"That's easy," said the bird. "I know that patch over there to the right is particularly good in October. And when I want some more, I can ask another bird to bring me nuts from that particular patch. He'll know the direction to fly in, and he'll bring them to me. If he brings me nuts that don't taste good, I'll know he's lying about where he got them. And I won't use him as a messenger again."
"You mean, the name for the good patch of nuts doesn't have to belong to anyone? You just tell the other bird where to get the good ones and it all works out!?" The Prince was excited.
"Uh Huh", said the bird, backing away from the strangely excited prince and wondering what kind of weirdness had been going on in town.
Prince Hal Takes Action
Prince Hal thanked the bird (he was a very polite Prince) and turned on his heel.
He ran and ran and ran back to Xuma, his little kingdom by the sea.
The riot was still raging.
"Stop!" cried the Prince.
Everybody stopped what they were doing and stared at Prince Hal.
In the sudden silence, Prince Hal started to talk.
"You can call anything by any name you want," he said. "You don't even need permission. You don't need a registration. Don't you remember? My name was never registered. My father just made it up! And then most of you used it, so it became my name. Names just show up -- they don't have to be given or granted or bought or sold."
The people just stared.
Encouraged by the continuing silence, Prince Hal went to an apple stand and started peeling off the "Best" tags on each apple.
"You don't need this label," he explained. "You know it comes from this store and, even if you don't come to the store yourselves, you can send a trusted messenger to bring it to you."
"But how," said a merchant, "will my customers find me?"
"That's easy," said Prince Hal. "You'll be found using whatever name and address you like. Don't you remember how all of this trouble over names started? Someone tried to get the exclusive right to call an apple 'best' or to call a cookie a 'creamie' or a sandwich a 'teezle.' And someone else pretended to sell 'Fragrant' pies that weren't from the 'Fragrant Pies' store."
"In other words, someone got greedy. And someone lied. Someone deliberately tried to cause confusion (and succeeded). And someone tried to take away our right, as citizens of this kingdom, to call sandwiches 'teezles' if we want to! Someone tried to claim that only he could use a particular word!"
"I don't get it," said the Merchant. The Prince sighed (in a patient sort of way) and continued:
"As long as we don't create a limited supply of tags, no one can hoard them. As long as the messenger services have good maps and lists of addresses, all the merchants can be found. As long as people don't lie (and I suppose we'll need to ask my father to make sure they don't), we should all be fine. And as long as we don't give anyone the right to own the words we use together to describe this beautiful kingdom, and everything in it, we won't have to have Name Bureaus and Naming Courts."
The Prince was getting up a head of steam!
"We'll all decide, together, whether 'teezle' is a better name for sandwiches or just the way we want to refer to a sandwich that comes from a particular merchant's shop. Why should the first merchant to think of that word get to make the decision? Maybe all sandwiches will be called 'teezles,' and we'll just have to use the merchant's name or address to make sure we get teezles from our favorite store!"
"But my tags stand for quality!" protested one merchant.
Prince Hal knew he was about to win the argument.
"As far as the quality of the apples or sandwiches is concerned, it's really all a matter of trust! And it's people we trust, not names! If we did decide, together, to call only the sandwiches from one particular shop 'teezles,' then it would be wrong for someone else to call their sandwiches by that name. But that's because it would be a lie -- in light of the way in which we all choose to use names, and the people and shops in which we place our trust -- not because the merchant who first thought of the name has some right to force us to use that word in that way!"
"Aha," said the townspeople as one.
How it all Came Out in the End
And so the townspeople of Xuma began calling apples and pies and each other whatever everyone else seemed to call them, without registering anywhere or getting permission. And it simply didn't matter.
All the tags were taken down. All the labels were peeled off.
Everyone continued to shop at their favorite stores, to eat at their favorite restaurants, and to accept deliveries of apples from reliable friends and messengers.
Almost no one claimed to be someone else, or called their goods something that they weren't -- and, if they did, they were punished.
The Royal Commission, the Name Bureau and the Naming Court all found other employment (much to their individual relief).
The teenage Red Tag crowd and some of the original Name Bureau clerks started a new messenger service called the "Ubiquitous Service." Ubiquitous created a clever set of cards, all its own, that made it easy for their customers to ask for a mix of apples or pies or cookies from different merchants with desirable products.
Messenger services competing with Ubiquitous created different snack packs -- where Ubiquitous used teezles from the first shop on the left, competing services got their teezles from shops a few streets away.
The merchants were uncomfortable at first with having "teezle" used in such inconsistent ways, and with having their particular teezles included in a snack package selected by a lowly messenger service. But the merchants' grumbling died down eventually because all the customers that really liked their products could order them from home much more easily (and, as a result, everyone -- particularly children -- seemed to be eating teezles and creamies more often.)
Ubiquitous, by the way, was a highly successful company. In addition to the snack pack line of business, the former Name Bureau clerks at Ubiquitous created a directory of Xumaian cookies. For a modest fee, a Xuma cookie maker could have his cookies listed with Ubiquitous next to a description of where the cookies were located (behind the second house on the fourth street, for example). Ubiquitous quickly secured funding and expanded its coverage to include lists of teacakes, specialty pizzas, and chocolate eclairs.
(Later, the Best Apples merchant offered to pay another messenger service -- not Ubiquitous -- to send all orders for apples to his store, regardless what the customer asked for. The messenger service accepted the money, but quickly went out of business when people figured out that they couldn't trust those messengers.)
And King Nominum, who hardly missed the now uncollected Name Fee, was very proud of his son for bringing peace and order to the kingdom once again.
As they wandered in the castle garden, savoring this success, the King turned to his son for some additional policy advice. "Don't you think", asked the King, "that we should make it illegal for anyone under 12 to order a 'creamie' from a messenger without verified parental consent?"
"Oh, father," said Prince Hal, rolling his eyes, "Don't you understand?"
"Understand what?" said King Nominum.
"It'll never work. The kids will just call them something else," the wise Prince said.