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Contest: What’s in a Name?

In Freakonomics, we make the argument that a child’s first name doesn’t affect his or her life outcome. I am guessing that most inanimate objects, too, are relatively unaffected by the names they happen to pick up — even if the names aren’t very good.

It has always struck me that a lot of the things we do and use and see every day have names that aren’t very accurate or appropriate or idiomatic. For instance: airport. Buses go to a bus station, trains go to a train station, but planes go to an airport? It’s not a terrible name — you could argue, in fact, that it’s better than “bus station” or “train station,” since it’s one word instead of two — but it is a bit odd. Once something is invented and named, however, its name rarely changes.

I don’t mean to say that most invented common nouns are bad. Speed dating strikes me as a great term: accurate, memorable, descriptive. I like e-mail pretty well, and I love snail mail; in the spirit of these terms, I’ve been trying to get people to refer to the telephone (another term I don’t love) as ear mail, but I have failed miserably.

So I thought we’d try a little exercise here: taking a common noun that we use all the time and trying to come up with a better name from scratch. Think of it as a chance, however minor, to rewrite history. Whoever comes up with the best suggestion gets a Freakonomics prize of their choice: a signed book, a yo-yo, or a fact-a-day calendar.

Today’s word: computer.

Sure, a computer computes, and that name probably made sense back when the computer came into being; but now it strikes me as a really lousy term for a machine that’s changed the way we interact, think, do business, etc.

List your new names for this miraculous machine in the comments below. And if you have suggestions for future renaming projects, send them to melissa (at) freakonomics (dot) com.

Addendum: You can see the winners of the contest named here.