Friday, February 22, 2008

Apostrophe carriers shall be assimilated

Apostrophes in names stir lot o' trouble

It can stop you from voting, destroy your dental appointments, make it difficult to rent a car or book a flight, even interfere with your college exams.

More than 50 years into the Information Age, computers are still getting confused by the apostrophe. It's a problem familiar to O'Connors, D'Angelos, N'Dours and D'Artagnans across America.


"It's standard shortsightedness," he said. "Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don't think of foreign-sounding names."


That's what happened during the Michigan caucus in 2004, when thousands of O'Connors, Al-Husseins, Van Kemps and others who went to the polls didn't have their votes counted.


All of this confusion has prompted some people to surrender to technology. Iraqi immigrant Lina Alathari was once known as Lina Al-Athari, but dropped the hyphen in America. "There is no pronunciation difference, so I'm fine with it," she said.

My own brand of apostrophe problem

It's not just apostrophes. You don't have to do anything so reckless as inherit a name with an apostrophe in it, to throw computers off whack. We mortals can offend computer's sensibilities by something far more innocuous -- for example, by not possessing a middle name. This has happened to me. I indeed don't have a middle name. It may be unusual in the US, but not back where I'm from. But the computer at Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not want to believe me. When I got married and changed my last name, I had to update my driver's license. A DMV clerk told me their computer is not letting her leave the middle name field blank. So she said she was going to put in my maiden name in the middle name field. I protested, but she said there was no way around it. Can't argue with a computer.

The funny thing was that a few years before that, when I first got a driver's license in Texas, the DMV computers accepted my middle-name-less-ness with no problem.

A few ArmadilloCons ago I had a conversation about this with an artist named Ctein. As one might imagine, it's not his given name. Whatever name he was born with, many years ago he officially changed it to Ctein. So he now has only one name -- and computers so far have not given him grief about that! Computers must be a lot more liberal in California, where he lives. He was surprised by my account of the stringency of Texas DMV computers.

He wasn't the first one-name-only person I've met. The first one was my roommate in a graduate student dorm. She was from Indonesia. Apparently there is a minority of Indonesians (maybe they belong to a certain ethnicity, I don't know) who go by just one name. She constantly kept running into situations where she was demanded to provide some kind of a surrogate first name. Usually clerks would give up and enter "Ms" as her first name, or sometimes "Fnu" (I guess that stands for "First name undefined" :-)).

I bet the digerati who keep saying that the internet would liberate us did not think of this particular way computers would try to force everybody into conformity. :-)

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