When one has an unexpected amount of free time—and very tedious online training to avoid—one’s mind strays onto some odd questions. In this case, what is a true name?

“Knowing names is my job. My art. To weave the magic of a thing, you see, one must find its true name out. In my lands we keep our true names hidden all our lives long, from all but those whom we trust utterly; for there is great power, and great peril, in a name.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea1

There is power in having and knowing a name, it’s a token of meaning for that concept. So if you are talking about a person it’s a lot easier, and more specific to talk about someone by name than by constructing the concept of that person every time2. E.g. the tall person over there is open to all kinds of referential ambiguity, but Charlie is fairly specific3.

I’ve noticed this idea coming up a lot in things I’ve been reading. In the Earthsea books, Ursula Le Guin has a system of magic where knowing a thing’s true name gives you ultimate power over it. Ged, the archmage of Roke and to some extent hero of the Earthsea books, becomes master of the great dragon just by knowing its name.

You could try to summon things4 at random by just saying all the words available in your language. That’s a huge space5 (there are 171,476 words in the OED). There’s something like 1080 atoms in the universe6, and even if we only name things about the size of a golf ball (8×1027) and we assume that the universe is made of golf balls, then 1052 is a good ballpark figure for the number of things that we might need names for.

Even a very simple naming system like IPv6 has [enough names7 in it to represent 3.4×1038 addresses](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv6#Larger_address_space). An IPv6 address is 8 four figure hex digits. If there are “15831 syllable candidates” then even if only 10% of them can go together, we could name everything in the golf-ball-universe with unique, 17 syllable words[^anti].

In the Earthsea books, everyone/thing has a use name and a true name. There might be clashes between use and true names, and when you’re asking for a cup of tea, you might summon a demon by accident. If saying something’s true name gives you power over it then a simple name like Ged would put you in real trouble! There must be more to magic than that8!

[^anti] Antidisestablishmentarianism is 12 syllables, so a 17 syllable word would be very hard to say9. That only takes into account words that are exactly 17 syllables long, if we allow shorter words too, we wouldn’t need as many syllables, and things we name more often could have shorter names, like “I”.

“Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) possible language in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch, would have its own name.”

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths10 page 93

I’m not sure if this is a fictional quote or not, but a quick google search finds that this line has been quoted by a load of writers, discussing Leibnitz, Kant, Locke, Berkley, so it’s definitely resonated with other people.

This idea of quantifying a space of all possible names came to me while I was reading The Dispossessed11. On the book’s communitarian anarchist world of Urras, everyone’s name is generated by a computer to be unique. Shevek, Bedap, Sabul, all two syllable names. If there really are almost 16k syllables in English, then we could name a population of over 125 million (125 318 196) Odonians before we need a new naming system; probably more than dusty Urras can support.

“Is it true that you get your names from a computer?”

“Yes.”

“How dreary, to be named by a machine!”

“Why dreary?”

“It’s so mechanical, so impersonal.”

“But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?”

“No one else? You’re the only Shevek?”

“While I live. There were others, before me.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed11 page 198

  1. Guin, Ursula K. Le. 2018. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition. Orion Publishing Group. 

  2. (Some sign languages (most or all probably) have a technique that lets you construct an idea once, then place it and refer back to it later)[https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/indexing.htm]. 

  3. Unless there’s a bunch of Charlies, but that’s less common, especially once the people talking have established a context. 

  4. This is basically security by obscurity. Whenever you get a share link that’s got a long hex hash in it, you’re relying on people not just guessing and reaching into the space of all possible hashes and seeing what comes out. 

  5. This archived page is from about 2009, and asks “How many syllables does English have?”. Amazingly, he seems to have unwittingly come up with the word “twerk”, way before anyone else”

    “The syllabification algorithm is not particularly sophisticated or elaborate. As a result, this list contains a number of strings of sounds that are not legitimate English syllables. This is due to the fact that my data do not recognize morpheme boundaries, even though this affects syllabification. For instance, the following two putative syllables are not actually legitimate syllables of English:

    jh r ae k s     LUGGAGE-RACKS
    t w er k t      OUTWORKED
    

    It shows up in the Ngram record in the 70s, but that seems to be beause of a German power station. 

  6. Assuming that the universe is made of hydrogen, in practice it’d be a bit less, because other elements are heavier, but not by much, maybe 1078 at most? 

  7. People say “names and addresses” but if you drop the navigational part of an address, then a name is basically the same thing. 

  8. Maybe that’s it? IP addresses aren’t a nice way to get to a website, but the are that site’s true name so maybe the URL is the site’s use name. If that’s the case, then it really would be magic to remember and be able to say a 17 syllable word. 

  9. pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis a word made up specifically to have a lot of syllables, only has 19 syllables. 

  10. Borges, Jorge Luis. 2000. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. 1 edition. London: Penguin. 

  11. Guin, Ursula K. Le. 2014. The Dispossessed. Later printing edition. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.  2