Naming Names - Anonymity is Dead

There are only two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

Phil Karlton, but I can't find a name for the original source...

Contriving names for things is so commonplace for computer programmers that we may be thinking up names more often than any other profession. Every day, usually dozens of times, I find myself trying to imagine the perfect name for a function or variable or module. Then I remember that there’s a term for the process of formulating the perfect name for a thing.

I just can’t remember what it’s called…

Then I find myself sitting there, trying to think of the perfect name for the process of creating the perfect name for a thing when I should be actually dreaming up the perfect name for that thing.

naming is hard
Naming is hard.

Can you relate? The word, by the way, is…

onomastics - n.
1. The study of the origins and forms of proper names.
2. The study of the origins and forms of terms used in specialized fields.
3. The system that underlies the formation and use of proper names or terms used in specialized fields.

Short, but informative names are important in all programming languages, though JavaScript’s anonymous functions do pose a unique temptation.

For those unfamiliar, an anonymous function is, unsurprisingly, a function declaration without a name.

A named function:

function count_sheep() {
  /* code */

An anonymous function:

function () { /* code */ }

One has a name, one doesn’t. Other than two low-level (and usually inconsequental) behavioral differences, they’re drop-in replacements for one another. The primary difference is that one has a name, so you can tell what it does. So, pick the one that has the name! Easy choice, right?

I wish! Choosing a name is a very real mental tax. Choosing a good name is time-consuming and often impossible. That is why, I feel, anonymous functions are used so commonly in JavaScript programs.

Anonymous functions free the programmer from the responsibility of choosing a name.

As a practical example, here’s some code from the jQuery DataTables example page, with three nested anonymous functions.

$(document).ready(function() {
    initComplete: function() {
      var api = this.api();
      api.$("td").click(function() {;

There are much (much!) more deeply nested examples of the Pyramid of Doom, but this one serves well as an example. If it had been implemented with short, named functions, it would be something like the following.


function create_datatable() {
    initComplete: init_datatable_api

function init_datatable_api() {
  var api = this.api();

function filter_datatable() {;

This updated code isn’t perfect, to be sure, but the first line really exemplifies this benefits of this approach, to me. $(document).ready( create_datatable ) reads so clearly.

The joy of small functions is a discovery I’m making and re-making every day. I’ve been craving a programming style like this for years, but it wasn’t until I read Functional JavaScript (and all the FP talk on r/programming) that my eyes opened.

Very, very small, reusable functions are a joy to work with. Give it a try, if you haven’t yet!