What’s In A Name? Tales Of Python, Perl, And The GIMP

In the older days of open source software, major projects tended to have their Benevolent Dictators For Life who made all the final decisions, and some mature projects still operate that way. Guido van Rossum famously called his language “Python” because he liked the British comics of the same name. That’s the sort of thing that only a single developer can get away with.

However, in these modern times of GitHub, GitLab, and other collaboration platforms, community-driven decision making has become a more and more common phenomenon, shifting software development towards democracy. People begin to think of themselves as “Python programmers” or “GIMP users” and the name of the project fuses irrevocably with their identity.

What happens when software projects fork, develop apart, or otherwise change significantly? Obviously, to prevent confusion, they get a new name, and all of those “Perl Monks” need to become “Raku Monks”.  Needless to say, what should be a trivial detail — what we’ve all decided to call this pile of ones and zeros or language constructs — can become a big deal. Don’t believe us? Here are the stories of renaming Python, Perl, and the GIMP.

A Renegade Python

Next year marks the end of life for Python 2 — and this time we mean it! Although usage statistics have shown a steady decline of Python 2 in favor of Python 3 over the last years, there is still a significant amount of Python 2 code out there. Expecting that every single one of those projects will migrate to Python 3 by New Years is unlikely. For one reason or another, it can be almost guaranteed that Python 2 will stick around for another while, officially supported or not. But its days are probably numbered.

Still, just suppose that a bunch of people teamed up around the idea of developing Python 2 further, for whatever reasons. After all, humans are complex, and someone out there was bound to lead a crusade against parentheses in print statements. And with the last official version of Python at 2.7, they might even be tempted to call their improved version “Python 2.8”.

This situation is not hypothetical, and when [Naftali Harris] proposed calling his modernized Python 2 branch  “Python 2.8”, the Python Software Foundation had a thing or two to say about it. The name has since been changed to Tauthon, but the remnants of the name clash are still to be found in the URL where it was announced. The Pythonistas, ever a witty bunch, decided that they’d better name-squat on “Python 2.8” to prevent any future misunderstandings. To quote: “The current un-schedule is: 2.8 final — Never”.

That’s the way forks are supposed to work after all. A project spins off of another and eventually develops enough of its own identity that it needs a new name to label the new contents. Whether Tauthon will gain any traction is beside the point. With a brand-new name, nobody is going to confuse it for mainline Python.

A Tale Of Two Perls

Similar to Python, Perl has had two major versions existing in parallel for a while now: Perl 5, which followed a natural version increase from its predecessor versions, and Perl 6, which always followed the goal to get rid of some old baggage, and has since grown into more of a sister language than a successor for Perl 5. A common statement is that “Perl 6 is not Perl”, and it’s largely true, except in name. Unlike Python, though, there is no community consensus that Perl 5 needs to be retired.

Logo for Camelia, Larry Wall’s code name for Perl 6

Will the new “Perl” need a new name? What happens when you type perl in the command line?

The old-school Perl community is not eager for Perl 6 to be seen as something “one better” than their beloved Perl 5. At the same time, the Perl 6 community wishes to get rid of the Perl 5 stench in their shiny new language. The situation with the two Perls is even more clear-cut than with the Pythons, except that Perl 6 has a larger following than Tauthon ever did.

The Perl 6 community has recently opened the discussion to find a new name for good, but somehow changing a name is harder than adding entirely new syntax to the language. If you need proof, try following the still ongoing discussion spanning several hundreds of comments — going in circles and full of everyone’s unique opinions — despite a consensus for Raku as new name. Clearly, there’s more to a name than meets the eye.

GIMP: Take It Or Fork It

Which brings us to the GNU Image Manipulation Program (the GIMP). People find this nickname offensive frequently enough that even its FAQ deals with it. Is it time for a name change? The official word on this is: the name will stay, but feel free to fork the project with your own name.

Well, a recent, unsuccessful attempt to request a name change challenging that very FAQ led in the end to just that: the Glimpse fork. Aiming not only for a new name, but having ambitious plans that include rewriting the GUI from scratch and adding their own set of features in the future. Time will tell how a community-driven development of this GIMP fork will prevail — for the time being, the main effort appears to unironically focus on, well, whether they should choose a different name. Oh no!

Who’s To Name Our Software Then?

We all know naming is hard, but in the grand scheme of any project, the name is really just one small detail. Yet somehow it’s emotionally laden. Here we have three examples: one of a single-author renaming that went fairly easily, one that should be smooth but is nonetheless heart-rending, and a third that’s a change in name only, for name’s sake. The renamings seem to be proceeding at speeds that are inversely proportional to the number of developers. One possible response to all of this is to throw up your hands and despair at the inefficiency of making decisions by committee, or even worse, by mob rule.

But maybe it’s also a heartening reminder than open-source software is made by many, many people who’ve put heart and soul into what they’ve created, to the extent that they identify with the work strongly enough to give it a name, like a dog or a sports team. Maybe it’s the purest sign of open-source love.

Or maybe it’s a tempest in a teapot. After all, what’s in a name?

58 thoughts on “What’s In A Name? Tales Of Python, Perl, And The GIMP

  1. What’s in a name? Confusion.

    Can we look at this from the perspective of the hobby programmer? He or she is self-teaching themselves to program, and all they see is a sea of programming language names that make no sense and bear no discernible relationship to each other. Sure they can spend their time (a LOT of time, too) doing internet searches to figure this out, but it seems that there should be a simpler solution, such as including the original name in the name of the branch such as you can see with some Linux disros. For example, “Ubuntu Linux” (whether that is the full official name of Ubuntu or not, it is how I have heard it spoken in the wild).

    Just sayin’…

    1. A solution to this is to make a well organized map of all known programming languages.
      Information about their feature support, how they are intended to run. (directly on hardware, or run time environment, emulator, etc?)

      Though, this information could and is slowly added to Wikipedia.org but it is far from complete.

      1. I believe we are more influenced by our first one or two programming language exposure than any specific language (although certain languages can have profound impact, lisps, functional languages etc).

        Most of what we imagine being good or bad first languages are probably projections.

        I struggle with memory management therefore C is a bad first language.

        Rust is too expansive for a beginner so C is a good first language.

  2. Ctrl+F “bikeshedding” – no matches. Let me fix that.Though, gotta say, there’s a point to be made when it comes to the name being a part of the project’s identity, but still I can’t help but remember the “when a failing company gets new owners, first radical thing they do is changing the name, this being the last radical change they do, too” stereotype.

      1. I like name changes, I get to list twice as many things on my resume.

        Before: I know perl
        After: I know perl and raku

        The first two layers of hr have no idea, they just see more is better.

  3. I remember that, a long time ago, I created a graphical boot manager and called it GAG (Gestor de Arranque Grafico -> Graphical Boot Manager; yes, I’m Spanish).

    I couldn’t believe it when some users asked me (very politely, that is true) to change the name… :-D

      1. bullies and racists will simply invent new words.

        but im more alarmed by the numbers of people who think that having thought police is a good idea. maybe they need to visit room 101 before they understand why that is bad.

    1. I hope you choose another name whilst keeping the Spanish origin.

      Monoculture (anglosaxon or other) is very similar to communism in a way, as it results in lack of diversity and therefore of choice, cultural, language, and so on.

      It is the same with big companies -Apple, and so on-, big chains -Starbucks, and so on-) by the way.
      It is quite sad and ironic that extreme capitalism results in communism, due to lack of choice and reduced competition (extreme capitalism results in monopolies due to concentration via mergers and acquisitions)

        1. replace communism with cartels and it works.

          you still have the same cultural sterilization that happens when a small number of entities have control over everything, which also happens in communism.

      1. >communism

        >It is the same with big companies -Apple, and so on-, big chains -Starbucks, and so on-) by the way.

        Yes. Those notoriously communist private corporations. Monoculture is definitely like the abolishment of private means of production in favor of centralized economic planning, in this way.

        1. You are missing one of the points.
          That regardless of companies being private, capitalism (at least as it is now) results in less and less options as companies get bigger. Therefore, the end result from a customer point of view is similar, less choice.
          Centralized economic planning also results in less choice, if only because of economies of scale.

          Look at how computers evolved. Initially there were many models, different kind of CPUs, made by many semiconductor companies. Look at it now.
          One can argue that it is “evolution”, survival of the fittest and so on.
          I just find it ironic that in the end the competition process resulted in Windows vs ?, Intel vs ? and so on.
          Less choice.
          We went from many companies competing and no clear monopoly, to just a few huge companies with a de facto monopoly.

          The same with supermarkets and small businesses (bakeries, butcher, etc.), it’s always the same pattern.

      2. No, I didn’t. I just explained very politely too that I would keep the name because it was an Spanish acronym. And I kept it. You still can search in google “gag boot manager” and find it.

  4. A plea for better naming…

    I don’t care if you chose an offensive name. If other people want to get their blood pressure up over a name then I’ll pop some corn, sit back and watch the show. It’s up to each and every individual to decide what effect such trivialities will have on their own lives. You chose yourself to get offended, amused or be unaffected by words.

    But please, please, no common words and no really short names!

    The best naming practice is this:

    Type your name proposal into Google. Look at the results. If you don’t think that you can push your way into the first page of results shortly after your project’s page is indexed for the first time then pick something else!

    That is what really matters about a name these days. Can someone easily Google it. If your common-word name is too hard to find among all the results then people are going to use something else.

    Being easy to spell and pronounce are nice too but owning the search term is what matters most.

    1. This is how my friends and I pick my hobby project. Has the domain name been taken? Can we make it to the top of search results? Do other people at least halfway like it? Can other people halfway spell it (enough to google it)?

    2. “A plea for better naming…”

      Yes, pleeeease.

      Example, the framebuffer image viewer, which some genius have shorten to FBI.

      Whenever having problems with it, a search gives results dealing with what the American Federal Bureau of Investigation are spending their days with, but very little of technical relevance.

    1. As a heavy user of perl 5.x, I’m perfectly happy with the new name Raku for the new language that has little to do with the one I use daily. As you say, namespace confusion can be a real issue. Since there’s little uptake of “perl 6” so far (it’s errrm, kind of slow at runtime), it’s the one that should have a new name early on so there will be less confusion downstream.

      And if you only want the odd “special needs” feature of 6 in 5, well, there’s always Damian Conway’s stuff.

    2. really? I’ve had zero problems searching for Python (the language) help. Maybe it helps that I like Monty Python too. (This explains my productivity issues at work, perhaps)

      “Tauthon” will be mainly a programmer’s trivia quiz question; I suspect that most serious users will move along to v3. it’s not that radical a change for most, and the overlap period has been yuge.

      1. Exactly. By the word “python”, first page of search results shows only about “Python” but nothing at all about “python”, the common noun !

        The charm of Monty Python show would have worked better visually, if atleast the icon of Python language did not look different like a python, since animal names can be less inspiring of technical imagery.

        Obviously, v3 is most welcome.

  5. Another interesting “what’s in a name”, and something orthogonal to these three examples is the libusbx vs libusb confusion.
    If you have time, watch the presentation Peter Stuge gave a 32C3 (search for “libusb: Maintainer fail”).
    If TL;DR: libusbx people forked from libusb, then a while later renamed their fork back to the original libusb, claiming the original libusb was “abandoned” (which the orignal libusb project page claimed for years to be an … alternative fact).

  6. Meh, I find it pointless to change any established names like gimp or git. I once had a co-worker who didn’t want any daemons to run on his machine even after multiple lengthy explanations of what a daemon was etc. What makes me apoplectic are the “clever” names that are not pronounced the way they are spelled (here’s looking at you nginx.) Then there’s the various software products based on the name symphony.

        1. And taking this further, good luck trying to find a word that is not used to mock anything in any of the world’s (was it) 7000 or so languages.

          Perhaps some minorities are just more equal than others?

  7. A fellow committee member once suggested that we drop the word “handicap” from all our signage and communication.

    He said, it came from “hand in cap”, or giving money to a beggar. (I don’t know if that is true, but it is so far removed from it’s original usage, that it seems worse to try and change the usage.)

  8. These people have no interest in resolving problems or as you rightly suggest, improving life or happiness of individuals.

    Their agenda is to score meaningless points to the acclaim they’ll receive in social media echo chambers in which they live their lives. The will die having lived pointless lives, having made the world a slightly more shitty place for everyone to live.

    1. I’m expecting all LAMP servers to be targeted next. Rename Apache because – cultural appropriation?

      Meanwhile, my graphic setup needs an acronym. It uses – Linux, Gimp/Glimpse, Blender, Terminal, Qt, Inkscape, and Audacity. Lucky I don’t have to care what others think, when naming a home PC.

      1. I didn’t check, but chances are “Apache” is a name imposed on the people, rather than their own name. Hence using the word won’t be cultural appropriation.

        People came over and put names on people and things that already had names. It varied from wrong words to European words to close but not right. The people who were alreafy here had little say in the matter.


        1. Is that like the term “japanese” being imposed on the people of Nippon? Because I note the Apache website uses a feather as their logo – and I remember the outcry when Katy Perry wore a kimono at a music video award ceremony.

          Logic seems to have very little to do with virtue signalling.

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