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What Does "Name Collision" Mean?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 17, 2024
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Within the context of computers and computer programming, "name collision" is the technical term for an instance in which two items have the same name within some logical enclosure. A name collision can occur in many instances, such as with the names of files in a directory, or in a program in which local variables in a function have the same name as some global variables. Most of the time, a name collision must be resolved immediately in some way, whether automatically by an operating system or compiler or manually through user input and decisions. The concept of a namespace sometimes resolves collision issues by creating different logical regions in which items with similar names can co-exist without ambiguity. In certain programming instances, a name collision might not be immediately evident, occasionally leading to hard-to-find program errors that can result from the compiler making certain assumptions about the names of items used.

An example of how a name collision can occur involves two directories full of files. If each directory contains a file named "DATA", and the contents of one directory are copied into the other, then the computer's attempts to copy the file named DATA will find that a file with the same name already exists in the target directory. This creates a name collision. In this instance, the user usually will be prompted and allowed to choose from a list of resolutions, including renaming one of the files, not copying the file or overwriting one of the files.

One commonly used solution for a name collision is the implementation of namespaces. A namespace is simply a way to define an area under which object names are contained. In the above example, a directory technically is a namespace, meaning multiple files can all have the same name as long as they are each in different directories.

From a programming perspective, a name collision can occur in situations such as multiple inheritance, overlapping variable scopes, or even with imported libraries in some languages. In general, a compiler will notice a conflict and generate a warning or error, although this might not always be the case. Other than using namespaces, collisions in many programming languages can be avoided by using qualifiers. A qualifier usually is a prefix that can be placed in front of a variable or class name to distinguish it from another variable with the same name.

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