A name that’s particular

Oxford University has 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the various debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the collegiate system here (for one thing, I should finish reading David Palfreyman’s book on the subject first). I just want to point out that for anyone who’s interested in web information architecture or website design this organizational circumstance gives them a fascinating corpus (including a probably-fascinating Corpus) of 44 roughly equivalent websites to compare: sites situated in the same cultural context, which deal with a similar size and shape of institution, similar sets of target users, and so on… but which are sufficiently autonomous that they can make very different choices about how to organise and display their information.

Before we even get to the content of the websites, I’ve long been intrigued and/or frustrated (depending on my mood) by the fact that the Colleges’ domain names are inconsistent in the way they relate to their actual names. Basically, they’re all www dot [name of college] dot ox dot ac dot uk… except where they’re not. I’ve reproduced the full list here so you can see what I mean:

All Souls College
Balliol College
Brasenose College
Campion Hall
Christ Church
Corpus Christi College
Exeter College
Green Templeton College
Harris Manchester College
Hertford College
Jesus College
Keble College
Kellogg College
Lady Margaret Hall
Linacre College
Lincoln College
Magdalen College
Mansfield College
Merton College
New College
Nuffield College
Oriel College
Pembroke College
The Queen’s College
Regent’s Park College
St Anne’s College
St Antony’s College
St Benet’s Hall
St Catherine’s College
St Cross College
St Edmund Hall
St Hilda’s College
St Hugh’s College
St John’s College
St Peter’s College
St Stephen’s House
Somerville College
Trinity College
University College
Wadham College
Wolfson College
Worcester College
Wycliffe Hall

By my count, that’s 25 colleges whose domain names are as close as possible within the characters allowed in domain names (omitting apostrophes, replacing spaces with hyphens) to their real name; 10 whose domain names are their intials; and 9 whose domain names are an abbreviation other than their initials.

Even the initials aren’t consistent: it’s not clear why the ‘nose’ of ‘Brasenose’ deserves its own initial (so perhaps ‘bnc’ should strictly count as an ‘other abbreviation’ rather than initials…), or why ‘St Stephen’s House Oxford’ has to have ‘Oxford’ added to its name/initials when the ‘.ox.ac.uk’ domain should locate and disambiguate it. Others look like initials at first glance (‘pmb’, ‘stx’), but aren’t.

Of the nine ‘other abbreviation’ Colleges, four of them (magd, sant, univ, worc) use the first four letters of their name — this is their ‘OUCS code’, the unique identifier* assigned to them by Oxford University Computing Services (now IT Services). These identifiers are used, among other places, in the University’s single sign-on system usernames — e.g. I was at Pembroke, and my username was pemb0471.

The remaining few (bfriars, chch, pmb, stx) are completely anomalous, and fairly unguessable (OK, St Catherine’s College is colloquially known as ‘St Catz’, but they’ve omitted the hyphen that nearly all the other ‘saints’ have included).

And of course, the names of the colleges themselves are inconsistent; Christ Church does not have ‘College’ as part of its name; Lady Margaret Hall is a College, not a Hall, while Regent’s Park College is a Permanent Private Hall; some of the Saints are possessive (St Hilda’s, St Hugh’s, etc) and others aren’t (St Cross College, St Edmund Hall — which is also a College, not a Hall). In fact, in some cases, their true names are very different from the names by which we know them: either “The President and Fellows of the College of St Mary Magdalen in the University of Oxford” or “The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope (Knight)” (better known as, respectively, Magdalen College and Trinity College) would make a ridiculously long domain name (though not actually exceeding the technical limit); unsurprisingly, of course, that wasn’t a major concern in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is any of this a problem? Not really; it makes the URLs hard to guess, but who guesses URLs these days? Typing any of the Colleges’ names into Google will take you to them in less time than it would have once taken you to dial up. However, it’s interesting to see that the same issues come up again and again in any attempt to derive a consistent naming scheme for computers from things that were named by and for human beings. I don’t want to fix it; I just find it fascinating.

* In fact, they’re just one of the many sets of unique identifiers used for departments and Colleges (and those sets are subject to change), but that’s probably a subject for another post.


29 Responses to A name that’s particular

  1. Long ago, before the Internet (yes, really) the UK academic community used the ‘Coloured Book’ protocols. For naming, these used the Name Registration Service which was a bit like the DNS, but with components in the opposite order. It also allowed each host to have two names – a short one and a long one. The short one was constrained to be no more that 17 or 18 characters because it had to fit into a short field in some ISO protocol whose name and purpose escapes me.

    So short form registrations in those days had to be heavily abbreviated. During the Coloured Book -> IP transition many organisations mapped existing short form NRS names (reversed) to DNS names, thus preserving the abbreviations. The length restriction was removed after the Coloured Books’ quite rapid death, but of course all the early adopters were left with the abbreviations that they had chosen for a different world.

    So I suspect that there will, in Oxford and in Cambridge, be a close correlation between those colleges using short abbreviations and those that were early adopters of networking. I know for example, because it was my fault, that this this is why St John’s Cambridge is saddled with http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk. I suspect it’s also why we use cam.ac.uk and you use ox.ac.uk rather than cambridge and oxford.

    • the hatter says:

      I suspect that x25 vs dns explains bnc rather than bc, somewhat indirectly. As 2-letter local parts were heavily discouraged in case there was ambiguity between, say, jp.co.uk and uk.co.jp most places erred away from any 2-letter first part, whether there was a country already assigned it or not. Of course, some of the earliest adopters already had 2-letter local parts before this was a concern, hence ox.ac.uk itself.

      • sparrowsion says:

        I remember there being fun and games in Cambridge during the transition period with uk.ac.cam.cl on X25 side and uk.nokia.fi on the DNS side.

    • Oxford used both oxford.ac.uk and ox.ac.uk for various purposes for many years, and up until some time around 2005 it was the primary choice for email forms. I don’t know when oxford.ac.uk came into being, though.

      The long form oxford.ac.uk was always accompanied by a long form of unit domain name; eg magdalen.oxford.ac.uk, computing-services.oxford.ac.uk; politics-and-international-relations.oxford.ac.uk… except when it wasn’t, and you had mixed forms (I can’t think of a concrete example of that now). And of course, some units (physics.oxford.ac.uk, physics.ox.ac.uk) only had one form.

      I think the current situation is much clearer; oxford.ac.uk is only used in a limited number of places such as a redirect on http://www.oxford.ac.uk/

    • janetmck says:

      I had guessed that the shorter names were born of some kind of technical restriction (or the recent memory of such restrictions, like the way people still used 8.3 filenames on systems that no longer required it), but thank you for confirming! And I do dimly remember NRS names — my dad had his @UK.AC.LBORO (I think) email address on his business card when he started working there in the late 80s.

      It’d be interesting to check how close the correlation was, though. How would we go about finding out the dates on which colleges made their way on to the internet?

      BTW, I note that while http://www.cambridge.ac.uk/ makes you follow a link to http://www.cam.ac.uk/, http://www.oxford.ac.uk/ just silently redirects.

  2. Tony Finch says:

    I have written an article with a similar analysis of Cambridge college domain names: http://fanf.livejournal.com/125010.html

    • janetmck says:

      Super, thank you!

      I count 6 pairs of Oxford/Cambridge colleges which have the same everyday name (domain names given in brackets, Oxford first):

      Corpus Christi College (ccc/corpus)
      Jesus College (jesus/jesus)
      Pembroke College (pmb/pem)
      St John’s College (sjc/joh)
      Trinity College (trinity/trin)
      Wolfson College (wolfson/wolfson)

      So only 2 pairs of identically-named colleges use the same domain name. However, two pairs of not-quite-identically named colleges share the same domain name:

      Magdalen College / Magdalene College (magd)
      Queen’s College / Queens’ College (queens)

      I also forgot to mention the colleges/PPHs which no longer exist! We lost three colleges (two merged, one stopped being part of the University) relatively recently:

    • sparrowsion says:

      I notice from your list that St Catherine’s is happy to be officially “Catz” but St Catharine’s is caths.cam.ac.uk, despite also being univerally called Catz.

  3. The nickname for St Catherine’s was Catz for decades, then someone chose the domain stcatz, there was a period of overlap, and now the St is part of the name used throughout. I heard St Stephen’s House requested ssh.ox.ac.uk but were not allowed because of the possible confusion with Secure Shell.

    • janetmck says:

      Yes, ssh.ox might have been confusing…

      I guess nobody was worried about Brasenose’s initials causing confusion with Bayonet Neill–Concelman? 8-)

  4. Tony Finch says:

    Also, isn’t the “Ho” in “ssho” short for “House” not “House, Oxford”?

  5. James Turner says:

    Brasenose is supposed to be a contraction of “Brazen Nose”, hence the N in the initials.
    Also, for even more fun is domain names used for websites and email not matching. Our website is http://www.wadham, but my email is @wadh, trying to guess one from the other would be tricky.

    • janetmck says:

      Ah, that makes sense about the nose, thanks. :o)

      Good point about the email domains. And of course we used to have a) long-form email addresses, and b) username@sable.ox.ac.uk as well just to confuse matters… (Does username@nexus still work?)

      • James Turner says:

        Username@nexus works, but its use is discouraged. Username@herald was the primary address for clubs, but a separate @studentclubs domain has now been created.

      • Kat says:

        Our 4-letter OUCS login was ‘bras’ (I was ‘bras1136’) – presumably because bnc was too short!

    • Tony Finch says:

      At Cambridge we try to ensure that if an institution has both long and short domains, then both work for web and mail at least.

      • James Turner says:

        As Dominic mentioned, we did have both long and short forms in the past. The long form was removed as having two forms of the email address was seen as confusing and unnecessary. However, it would have made sense if at the time we had moved to the ‘hybrid’ wadham.ox form.

    • @HTFB says:

      My Oxford Encyclopædia (1988) talks about “…the college, commonly known as BNC…” so this was evidently the natural contraction to choose. (By contrast the college trackybums of the early 90s had NOSE written down the thigh, generously leaving an opening for rival crews to explain about arses and elbows.)

      The encylopaedia doesn’t mention the form (St) Catz.

      • @HTFB says:

        Also relevant to your theme, perhaps: up till the Internet age, the members of New College would always correct you if you casually abbreviated it to New. That seems to have ceased, and New is the new New.

      • James Turner says:

        There was a least one of the ladies sports teams in the late 90s/early 2000s which had ‘Brazen Hussies’ on the back of their shirts.

    • Brasenose is properly “aula regia et collegium aenei nasi” which is usually translated these days as “The King’s Hall and College of Brasenose” but could be “The King’s Hall and College of Brazen Nose”. So I guess we could be KHCB or KHCBN?

      • Actually checking the statutes I see that our current legal name is “The Principal and Scholars of the King’s Hall and College of
        Brasenose in Oxford”. Interestingly the Founders’ preamble does not give a name in Latin, but only vulgariter nuncupatum, viz “The King’s Haule and Colledge of Brasenose in Oxford”, so “aula regia et collegium aenei nasi” is presumably a back formation. The actual origin of the name “Brasenose” is lost in the mists of time, through “Brazen Nose” is the most popular theory.

    • Jenni Scott says:

      I concur about BNC: in my undergraduate days (1988-91) I think you would/could use BNC as a short firm in non-Internet situations such as addressing notes to be sent thru pigeon post. Same for ChCh and LMH. Thus an internal and historical usage gets pressed into wider external usage even when it will then be obscure to the non-initiate.

  6. Philip Newton says:

    I had been wondering whether Secure Shell was responsible for not using “ssh”.

  7. Helene Augar says:

    University College’s abbreviation to univ in its domain name is not because that is the OUCS (or IT Services as they are now known) code. University College is the oldest of the Oxford colleges and its full name is “The Master and Fellows of the College of the Great Hall of the University of Oxford”. Clearly, having the longest name of any college is unwieldy and impractical for all sorts of reasons so members of the College shortened it to University College. However, that name is confusing and clearly not short enough for some, so the College has been known as Univ for a very long time.

  8. Pete Biggs says:

    My recollection was that it was intended (and indeed enacted) that the externally facing domain names for the Oxford units would be the long form – so they were all chosen such that they reflected the real name of the institution – hence eg christ-church.oxford.ac.uk – email addresses were re-written to the long form as they exited the University; web sites intended for external consumption would be the long form etc. etc. The short form was intended for internal consumption only and units were allowed to choose what they wanted that to be – most went for the abbreviation they were commonly known as within the University or within themselves, hence chch.ox.ac.uk or bnc.ox.ac.uk (Christ Church is universally abbreviated to ChCh within the college itself – I have not know any other abbreviation to have been used ever).

    Inevitably though no one ever used the two forms of website address and they were just aliases for each other. People also hated the long forms of the email address – they were just too long. People were also confused, both internally and externally, over the two different forms. Eventually sense prevailed and the long forms were dropped. The result was though that the short form was the one left being used, and the world had to put up with some seemingly nonsensical abbreviations, the derivation of which appears to be illogical, but is entirely sensible if you know the place!

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