What’s in a name?

Prince, Madonna, Sting, Bono, Rotan. What have they got in common? OK, the last two are Irish, but all of them are people who have unusual names with unusual origins. The first two have their parents to blame, but Bono, for example, gets his name from a hearing aid shop in Dublin, whereupon was written “Bono Vox”. The last name – Rotan – is mine and it’s also not a name I had from birth.

The short version of the story is that as a teen with a thirst for technology, mathematics (encouraged by my engineering father), science fiction, general madness and story-telling, I had tasked myself with the challenge of finding unusual names for characters in a complex, fictional, somewhat technical plot. An early attempt to generate names using phonetics, combinatorial heuristics and pseudo-random number generation produced a few interesting ideas but nothing really appealing. A subsequent attempt using popular mathematical equations – if one could claim that equations could be popular – produced better results, and one in particular had the juxtaposition of the Greek letter ρ (phonetically “Rho” or “Ro”) representing a radius, and the tangent of an angle (always abbreviated to “tan”). You’ll find such a snippet in Polar Coordinate Geometry. Many years later my wife knit me a garment with a large ρ and a line tangential to it (because she’s also a computer scientist and she “gets” it).

The phonemes of that equation (now mostly forgotten) merged into a name that subsequently was used as a “nom de clavier” for software programs I wrote in my late teens and early 20s, and for occasions when a formal name wasn’t necessary. It became a nickname during my college years, a copyright name on material I produced, and caused some confusion with officialdom like the bank. After a decade of use, it was obvious that this would become my professional name, and so it was made legal by deed poll and prefixed the names that I had since birth. Apart from two or three die-hards, everyone now knows me as Rotan.

That, of course, is the short version. For the full version you’ll have to spend a long time in my company and perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll tell you the rest.

Or maybe I won’t.

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