The Technium

Google-Unique Names

[Translations: Japanese]

You are unique, just like everyone. Shouldn’t our names be too?

My name is not. According to the database How Many of Me, which calculates the likely incidence of first/last name combinations, 1,000 other guys in the US have my name, Kevin Kelly. I think that is a major undercount because I personally have met dozens of others with my name, surely only a fraction of those born with it. A website set up as a clearing house for all the Kevin Kellys on the web lists nearly one hundred people with my name, which can’t possibly be one tenth of those named.

We humans have names to distinguish us, yet we paradoxically keep recycling the same ones. In the old days, say up to 50 years ago, a re-combination of familiar names might be unique and sufficient in a small town. But as small town life became less common and urban life more common, names had to be more uncommon. Today, in the global village and a universal Facebook, having a globally unique name makes more sense.

With such a common fist/last name attached to my face, I wanted my children to have unique names. They were born before Google, but the way I would put it today, I wanted them to have Google-unique names.

Names are funny things. They want to be different, but not too different. I’ve met several people recently who have numbers in their legal names. That’s different. I have a friend who’s son’s legal first name is Q. That’s unique. Some folks has deliberately unpronounceable and thereby incredibly unique names, but at the cost of low communication (spell that again please?). Finding a balance between too-different for comfort and just-different enough for unique is an art. Ask anyone trying to come up with a company or website name.

People’s names are more complicated still because we often want a name to be a “name” word. Like John or Kevin. In English we have certain words which are first and last names, and are only used as names. There is nothing else named Kevin except people. (ANd these days, they are losing some of their gender specificity. I’ve met one girl Kevin. I am sure there is at least one female Kevin Kelly. )

We would find it funny or uncomfortable for someone to be officially named “watermelon” or “guitar” or “nervous” — although we are fine with those as nicknames. But in Chinese, and other cultures, name words are often ordinary words like these. In fact elsewhere folks are formally named melon and guitar in their local tongue. We see that same impulse in the English names that hundreds of millions of Chinese are adopting in their move toward globalization. Online you’ll find Bicycle Chen, Paper Wang, or Promise Lin. Any linguist will tell you that our western names all began as ordinary words, which lost their meanings over time, except for a few like Baker, Smith, Son, etc whose meaning we can still discern. Centuries later name words most communicate “nameness” and sometimes, ethnicity.

The balance between different and too different in a name (and other creations as well) is really a trade off between uniqueness and meaning. In choosing the names for our kids we tried to balance communicating uniquenss (“Zorr”!) and communicating meaning (“Tom,” safe American). We retained meaning in our own family by constraining the choice to names that meant something both in Irish (my line) and Chinese (my wife’s line), while still sounding “name-ish” to teachers and friends — and being Google-unique. If you google our kids names Kaileen Kelly, Ting Kelly and Tywen Kelly, you get them.

(I should be clear that having a Google-unique name is not the same thing as being easily found on Google. You could have a unique name, do nothing, and not be found. Or you could be named John Smith and be found on the first page because you were an active writer. See this Wall Street Journal article on the economic issues around having a searchable name.)


Company names must make the same tradeoffs in the balance between uniqueness and communication. As a name, “Apple” is nothing unique (ask the Beatles), but it does communicate certain feelings and notions. On the other hand Xzdggr communicates very little, even though it is unique. One way many companies have navigated this compromise is by adopting abbreviations and unique spellings of common words (like Flickr, Digg, etc) to both stand alone and communicate.

I expect personal names to continue to drift in this direction. I’ve been signing books and I’ve learned to ask each time “how do you spell that” no matter how common the name, because one in five times, the person will spell it non-traditionally. There have always been a few with startling weird names, but in general names are becoming more diverse. With the global remix, intermarriage, and constant migration, “normal” first names in schools in the US and Europe will as likely be Arabic, Indian, or Korean as they would be English, or Irish.

There are more than enough words in our dictionaries for every person on earth to have a unique dual name, even if you keep the tradition of maintaing a family name. I understand the attraction of continuing previous names in a family (I was originally named after my father), but the virtues of having a search-unique name will continue to grow.

We are very creative in naming our pets and companies but less so in naming our children. We now have the tools for detecting unique names and an increase acceptance of them. Yes, please forgive us, we will see Jennifr, Thms, Connr, 3er, Zorr and more commercial brand names for kids. Unique names for the living don’t have to be new names; they could be old out-of-fashion names resurrected. (See NameVoyager for the rise and fall of name popularity in the US.)


Yep, 1952 peak, that’s when I was born.

But my guess is that the complicated process of naming things – checking to see who or what else is named the same, what names are “available,” considering how names work in other cultures — will become so familiar to people as they name their band, their book, their pet, their blog, their start up — that they will take some of that same approach when they name their children.

At the same time our culture will more and more demand unique names. As Clive Thompson points out in his article on Googleable names: “ says that 7% of all its searches are for personal names; meanwhile, 80% of executive recruiters do an online search for applicants’ names, and 40% of people say they’ve used search engines to hunt down long-lost acquaintances.” This state of affairs is not true in many countries and cultures today, even technologically advanced ones like Germany or France or Scandinavia, where names have to conform to certain rules. No illegal names like “@” or “Dwezzle” or “4Real” or “Devil” or “Anus” (all ones that have been rejected.) We are dealing with children after all, and in theory a name lasts a lifetime. And every system, even the adhoc internet, has legal naming rules.

But if we make changing a name as easy as changing a url, what’s illegal should narrow. This won’t happen overnight. But I’m guessing that a century hence the average newborn will get a name that is unique among both the living and the dead. I think that will make the world more interesting.

By logical extension, there may come a time when a country/state/city declares that unique names are mandatory. You must select a name that no one else has. Obviously this improbable scenario can only work if there is a unified database of names in use — which does not seem so far fetched. Your name would thus serve something similar to an unique ID number. I could live with that.

  • This seemed to me like a really interesting idea, so I popped open Dictionary on my Mac and started looking through the Ls. Here’s some of what I found:

    labefaction (noun, archaic) deterioration or downfall.

    labia (plural noun) the inner and outer folds of the vulva, at either side of the vagina.

    labor (noun and verb) work hard; make great effort. work at an unskilled manual occupation. have difficulty in doing something despite working hard. (of an engine) work noisily and with difficulty. [ with adverbial of direction ] move or proceed with trouble or difficulty. (of a ship) roll or pitch heavily.

    labradorescence (noun, Mineralogy) the brilliant iridescence exhibited by some specimens of labradorite and other feldspars.

    lacerate (verb) tear or deeply cut.

    lachrymose (adjective, formal or literary) tearful or given to weeping. inducing tears; sad.

    Of course, a few of the words were suitable (Lacerta, an obscure constellation on the Milky Way, caught my eye). But not all words are good names. Lachrymose sounds neat, but nobody wants to name their child “tearful”. Labradoresence has a cool meaning—the phenomenon they’re describing sounds beautiful—but it’s quite a mouthful. Labia is short and sounds good, but naming a child after a sex organ is going to cause a lot of problems later in life.

    In fact, of the 320 or so dictionary entries I examined, perhaps ten or twenty were even vaguely suitable as names. The New Oxford American Dictionary—the basis for the Mac OS dictionary—is said to contain on the order of 100,000 words, so if they’re usually in that ratio, that gives us about 3,000 to 6,000 suitable name-words. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but is it enough “for every person on earth to have a unique dual name”? I’d wager there are more than 6,000 Smiths out there. Heck, there are probably more than 6,000 Kellys.

    Having said that, it’s true that there’s a lot of untapped potential for unique names. But that possibility is quite far away for me right now—I need to find a mother before I can have little Lacerta…

  • I’ve thought about this before:

    There are some counter-arguments to the thought that names *will* become more unique (even though uniquefying a name is useful enough that I would expect it to continue in 1st World areas).

  • Khan

    One reason why How Many of Me may have underestimated the number of Kevin Kellys in the world is that the site assumes that your first name and surname are statistically independent. This is a pretty silly assumption. By that logic there should by 50 times as many Mohammad Smiths as there are Mohammad Khans in the US, because Smith is 50 times more popular as a surname than Khan is.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      That sounds about correct, although I am hoping that they have a more sophisticated algo than that.

  • boomsb

    Seems I’ve got a ‘1 or fewer’ rank. My parents chose well.

    A name database logically leads to people with SQL injection attacks as names. It’s certainly one strategy to make a unique name.

  • Officially named David as a child, I started spelling my name as ‘Dav’ as a high schooler in the 80s. It fit better in the high score list at the arcade, and I used it as a pseudonym for my articles in the HS newspaper. I grew very attached to having a unique name, and it became even more valuable in the age of the Web. I eventually had it legally changed to Dav.

    When my daughter was born we named her Tesla, after the scientist I admired (The car company of the same name was announced a week after her naming, resulting in a touch of chagrin, as if we had just named her Porsche). People are often named after saints, but we preferred a more secular approach.

    Our second daughter is due in two months and we have no names so far. There is a lot more pressure this time, as we feel a “normal” name is completely out of the question now, but at the same time, as you point out, we can’t pick something unique just for uniqueness’ sake. I require a name evoking art or science. My wife requires a name pronounceable in Japanese. I’ve recently been leaning toward trying to pull a name from Arabic or Mandarin as a reflection of the era.

    The google-uniqueness isn’t lost on us either, although it isn’t our primary reasoning. I wonder if it would be possible to calculate the rise of unique names by region, and if any trends come out of analysis of that. I can easily imagine that it is more common in communities like the Bay Area where parents are more cognizant of issues like search-ability.

  • Valkyrie_Ice

    I’ve had this argument rather commonly, because I often get accused of “hiding” behind a false name.

    There is only ONE Valkyrie Ice on the web that I am aware of, and there has only ever been one since I first signed into the old Red Dragon Inn back even before the web.

    I am not a “anonymous name” I am a Unique ID, and have over 25 years worth of web history attached to my name.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Way to go Valkyrie Ice. Wish I had that foresight.

      • Valkyrie_Ice

        *giggle* I wish I could claim it was foresight. I just dislike my legal name and use it as rarely as possible XPPPPP

  • One disadvantage of a google-unique name that you overlook is that new names are hard to remember. Both Kevin and Kelly are words (names) that most Americans have heard many times before, so apparently they easily stick in your memory. The first name + last name combination provides enough uniqueness, given a person’s list of acquaintances, to identify that specific Kevin / specific Kelly, while retaining the advantage of easily remembering the name.
    My own name, Elad Kehat, is quite common in Israel, but most Americans I met have heard both my first and last name for the first time upon our meeting. This makes it almost impossible for them to get right and remember.
    The contrast between the average Israeli’s and average American’s reaction to my name is anywhere between amusing and frustrating, depending on the situation.
    I guess most American and western European names have become popularized enough through entertainment and culture that they’re recognized almost everywhere, so they’re less familiar with that phenomenon.
    The moral of my little story is that unique names may carry some practical disadvantages in day-to-day lives.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      >The moral of my little story is that unique names may carry some practical disadvantages in day-to-day lives.

      Yes, Elad, that is a good point to keep in mind. Globally unique names will be hard to pronounce and remember.

  • openeyez

    It’s funny, when I looked up my name, my brother’s, and my fiancee’s, “How Many of Me” said there was just one person (or fewer) in the US with our name. Our first names aren’t that unusual–Eli, Ben, and Elle–but apparently the combination with our last names makes them rather unique.

  • I have to admit that most of my regrets on kid-naming now stem not from lack of uniqueness (did ok on that front) but on the missed opportunity for geekery. Just this week I’m regretting that we didn’t name our daughter EULA and our son Mark (middle names: All As Read).

    Thanks for linking to my post on the Social Signal site!

  • “I’m an American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.”

  • There are 1 or fewer people in the U.S. named… (with my name)

  • Sudarshan Gopalan

    The saddest I ever heard was of two doctor-parents who named their kids hemoglobin and chlorophyll, according to them the building blocks of animal and plant life, respectively.

    True story.