The Jubilee Line of the London Underground runs from the north-west, through the centre, south-east, and on into east London. It doesn’t have any branches—well, apart from a secret spur near London Bridge, and a defunct one that used to lead to the old terminus at Charing Cross—so the only decision when getting on is whether to go towards Stanmore or Stratford, two stations whose names share the same first two letters, the same vowel sounds, and almost the same length, yet are at completely opposite ends of the line. Peering at a distant sign or hearing them over a fuzzy public address system, you might easily mistake them. Fortunately, all Underground platforms are also clearly marked with their compass direction, and announcements correspondingly mention the ‘eastbound service’ or whatever, so you can ignore the easily-confused names as long as you know vaguely which direction you’re going.

What I can’t get my head around, though, is Canada Water and Canary Wharf. These two stations are adjacent on the Jubilee line, although they are separated by the Thames at ground level. I live near Canada Water and I’ve always managed to avoid getting off at the wrong one, simply because I know the preceding station in each case. But when it comes to talk about either station, I say the wrong one about half the time, and I’m never confident. The orthographic and audible similarity between the two stations’ names just throws me. Humans are predisposed to find patterns and connections, but it’s not helpful when what I actually want to do is to distinguish them.

It may just be me that finds the Jubilee Line confusing. But I’ve read similar complaints about the names of new fonts in Windows Vista (Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Consolas, Constantia, Corbel) and of the constituent applications of the KDE desktop (Kaffeine, Kamera, Katapult, Kate, Konqueror, Kontakt, Kopete, etc.).

Advice for authors commonly recommends giving the characters in a story distinct names—varying not just initials, but also length, rhyme and rhythm. Maybe it’s advice that should also be heeded by transport planners, marketers, and programmers, for exactly the same reasons.