Naming Things is Hard

Roel M. Hogervorst

2020/06/15

Another day another thing that in my mind should be a no-brainer but is somehow controversial: ‘renaming the default branch in github from master to something else (f.i. main).’

yes, I think I do want to talk about renaming master in github. I think there are 2 things to keep in mind: words matter and defaults are very important.

Here is how I see it. Some terms in the computing world have negative connotations. Being confronted with these words is yet another barrier to entry for underrepresented groups. We chose these words in the past, and we can choose to use different words now. In fact some people who initially introduced these words openly say that they did not think it through when they created the default and are happy to see it change Twitter thread 1, happy to change.

Several large open source projects chose to use different words before. They moved away from {blacklist, whitelist} to {blocklist, allowlist} and changing {master, slave} to {primary, replica}.

And if github changes their default for the main branch to ‘main’ in stead of ‘master’ this will be great! Its a slightly smaller speedbumb see Scott Hanselman’s post in the links below to get more people excited about technology. Defaults matter, a lot. Many people don’t change from the default option. And so some barriers will be removed for new projects. And I expect that in a year or so, everyone will use ‘main’ as new default. It is just a different label.

But I see very angry reactions from people that mostly fall in this category:

In general we see this: naming things is hard

and this one:

"They're just standard terms in computing! They don't mean anything! This isn't important."

Then let's change them since it's no big deal.

"...

...

No."

There is a huge resistance to change

In fact some people become livid with the thought that things can change. They focus on what the meaning of the word master is in this case. ‘It is master from master record.’ & ‘it is blacklist from blackbook, an old english word’. And if you do this, I think you are missing the point. Words matter, and by using different words as default we try to exclude less people.

Let’s focus on github: If you really must insist on using master in stead of something else, than you can, it was possible before, it is still possible.

The world changes, like it always does. Words change meaning and the meaning changes in different groups. Naming things is hard as it always was. In hindsight some of the terms we chose were not good enough. We learn and now we choose terms again. Hopefully better.

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