What's in a name?
"Why in the world do they call it _______?" It's a common question asked in and out of tech circles. Strange names like Bluetooth, Google, Wiki, and others frequently cause head scratching rumination and the answers are often just as strange as the names.
You may be familiar with a few of the origin stories behind these tech terms--hopefully you'll be pleasantly surprised with most.
Image: Image: iStock/SIphotography
Lots of people think they know where the term debugging came from--Grace Hopper discovered a moth in the Harvard Mark II that caused it to break down. While Admiral Hopper may be responsible for the popularization of the term she isn't the one who started it--in fact it goes back decades before she taped a moth to a notebook page.
Thomas Edison even used it in a 1878 letter, though the likely origin is even older than that: The Middle English word bugge was commonly used to refer to gremlins and monsters and it has probably stuck around ever since then.
Image: Image: NYU Polytechnic
I've often wondered about this one--the creator of Bluetooth really reached into history to find a name for its product.
Harald Blåtand Gormsson was a Danish king who ruled from roughly 958 to 986. His nickname, Blåtand, means blue tooth, and there several possible origins for where it came from.
What we do know for sure is that he united several warring Danish tribes into a single kingdom. Bluetooth was a collaborative effort between the warring factions of Intel, IBM, Ericsson, and Nokia, hence the collaborative name that merged not only those factions, but also different forms of tech into one communicative web.
The Bluetooth logo is even a combination of the norse runes for H and B, Harald's initials.
Image: Image: denstoredanske.dk
Wikipedia might be the most popular wiki on the web, but it isn't the first: That honor belongs to WikiWikiWeb. It still exists as a user-editable repository, just like Wikipedia, but is geared toward programmers and code.
The term Wiki is a shortening of Wiki-Wiki, the name of the shuttle that took designer Ward Cunningham to his hotel from the Honolulu airport on a vacation. Wiki-Wiki is a Hawaiian term for very fast, which Cunningham thought was a good name for his new platform. The rest is computer history.
Image: Image: WikiWikiWeb
In the age of the AI and automation boom, robots are becoming a daily part of life. Calling them robots, however, might be a bit of a problem once they start thinking for themselves: It comes from an old Slavonic word for forced labor.
Czech playwright Karel Capek wrote a science fiction play in 1920 called Rossum's Universal Robots. Rossum's was a company producing bioengineered humans who lacked a soul and had no emotions or independent thoughts. He called them robots, and the term has stuck to this day.
Image: Image: Vintage Geek Culture
It could have been called Backrub--we can all be thankful that Page and Brin ditched that awkward moniker.
They went with Google instead, which is a play on the word googol, which is the number one with one hundred zeros after it. Though if you believe other sources that aren't official Google stories it may have been due to a misspelling: Stanford computer science graduate student David Koller tells a story that comes from colleagues who worked alongside Page and Brin when they first changed the name.
"Larry's office was in room 360 of the Gates CS Building, which he shared with several other graduate students, including Sean Anderson ... Sean and Larry were in their office, using the whiteboard, trying to think up a good name. Sean verbally suggested the word "googolplex," and Larry responded verbally with the shortened form, "googol" ... Sean is not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as "google.com," which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering it."
Image: Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic
If you've heard the story of Java being an acronym meaning Just Another Vague Acronym you've bought into some incorrect hype: It was just one of many proposed names when Sun Microsystems realized the original name for the popular language, Oak, was already taken.
James Gosling, Java's initial author, says "The name 'Java' originated in a meeting where about a dozen people got together to brainstorm ... Lots of people just yelled out words. Who yelled out what first is unknowable and unimportant ... in the end we whittled it down to a list of about a dozen names and handed it off to the lawyers."
Image: Image: Computer Weekly
Another in a long line of tech-related "backronyms," Daemon was not initially a shortening of Disk And Execution MONitor. It comes from MIT's Project MAC (yet another backronym), one of the first AI research groups.
A physics thought experiment, Maxwell's Demon, involves a demon that constantly operates invisibly, sorting molecules and theoretically violating the second law of thermodynamics.
The Daemons that exist in your computer do similar work, except they don't violate any immutable laws of physics. Rather, they keep things running properly in the background invisibly to you, the user.
Image: Image: University of Pittsburgh
There are a lot of computer companies with fruit-based names, and Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton didn't want to get left out of the loop.
"In the U.K. we had Apricot. We had Tangerine. We had even Acorn, which is technically a fruit. So there have been a number of fruit-named computer companies. Raspberry was one of the few remaining fruits that wasn't taken, and it's also the rudest fruit because it's like blowing a raspberry."
The Pi has nothing to do with baked fruit and crust: It represents Python, the language used to program the mini machines.
Image: Image: Pillsbury
There are a lot of "tails" surrounding the origin of the name mouse for this universal computer accessory, but if we take the word of its creator Douglas Engelbart they're all rubbish. "I don't know why we call it a mouse ... It started that way, and we never did change it," he said during a presentation demoing the product in 1967.
Regardless of what he says the stories continue to swirl. Other sources say Engelbart stands by his "who knows where it came from" line, but added they thought the cord looked like a mouse. Yet another version of the mouse's origin story says it was named such because the onscreen pointer was called a CAT, though there's no actual documentation available to support that claim.
The naming of the mouse will just have to go down as one of history's great mysteries. Right up there with Stonehenge.
Image: Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic
Who hasn't wondered where the word dongle came from? No one quite knows, though there are some good theories. The OED says dongle was probably just an arbitrary made-up term--not the most satisfactory explanation.
Another reasonable explanation is that it's a corruption of the word dangle. Plenty of dongles dangle, which makes this one more credible than the urban legend that dongles were named for their creator, Don Gall (check out page 149 of that linked PDF for a vintage ad and the likely origin.)
There are a number of possible reasons, all of them a combination of absurd, delightful, and somewhat plausible.
Image: Image: Byte Magazine/Archive.org