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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Unicode Names in E-mail headers

If you've corresponded with folks via gmail, you might have noticed that some folks write their English names, and then put their non-English names in parenthesis after that. For instance, in my case, I write: Piaw Na(蓝俊彪).

This use started in my office in 2005. I was complaining to Pengtoh about the pain of using Chinese input methods, and how they weren't actually easy to use on my Linux workstation anyway. Pengtoh pointed me at Mandarin Tools, and I used that to construct my Chinese name in pinyin. We then wondered whether Gmail would handle unicode in the headers fine, so we tested that by sticking our Chinese names in the Gmail settings. (You can find this in the "Accounts and Import" tab of the Gmail settings)

It turns out that Gmail handled Unicode in e-mail headers just fine. We then decided we wanted to see if we could make this convention common. We did this by ourselves, and then decided that we had to recruit non-Asians to make the meme stick as well. So Pengtoh contacted a few more of our non-Asian co-workers, and offered to construct Chinese names for them.

I knew we had succeeded when I started seeing Japanese names in parenthesis, then Hindi over the years. The unfortunate part in the early days was that many other mail readers could not handle unicode characters, either blanking them out, or turning them into gibberish. To solve this problem, I also constructed a non-unicode name for use with those mailing lists and corresponding with people who used these mailers. You can do this by adding more than one entry in the "Send Mail" as part of the Gmail settings. My hope is that all mailers everywhere can handle non-Unicode names in headers eventually.

It's not inconceivable that somewhere else, someone else came up with the same convention. However, I do not recall seeing this convention pre-2005, so at this moment, my best guess is that Unicode names in parenthesis originated in my/Pengtoh/Ovidiu's office in 2005. If you know of an alternate origin, please let me know in the comments!

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