The startup world is filled with all manner of intentionally misspelled nonwords and incomprehensible baby talk. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for an earlier time when tech names actually meant something.
The stories of how some of the world’s biggest brands and technologies came up with their names open a window to a different era—a simpler time before Web squatters took all the normal names and corporations focus-grouped language to death.
A better time.
Here we present the hidden—and occasionally accidental—histories behind some of the biggest names in tech.
Like most normal people, you probably haven’t invested too much of your valuable time pondering the origins of the term “Bluetooth.” As it turns out, the ubiquitous wireless technology’s name has nothing to do with being blue or tooth-like in appearance and has everything to do with medieval Scandinavia.
Harald Bluetooth was the Viking king of Denmark between 958 and 970. King Harald was famous for uniting parts of Denmark and Norway into one nation and converting the Danes to Christianity.
So, what does a turn-of-the-last-millennium Viking king have to do with wireless communication? He was a uniter!
In the mid-1990s, the wireless communication field needed some uniting. Numerous corporations were developing competing, noncompatible standards. Many people saw this growing fragmentation as an impediment to widespread adoption of wireless.
One such person was Jim Kardach, an Intel engineer working on wireless technologies. Kardach took on the role of a cross-corporate mediator dedicated to bringing various companies together to develop an industry-wide standard for low-power, short-range radio connectivity.
At the time, Kardach had been reading a book about Vikings that featured the reign of Harald, whom he viewed as an ideal symbol for bringing competing parties together, as he explained:
Bluetooth was borrowed from the 10th-century, second king of Denmark, King Harald Bluetooth; who was famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.
The various interested parties eventually came together to form the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which developed the agreed-upon standard we know and love today. “Bluetooth” was originally meant to be a placeholder, but the name had already taken off in the press and thus remains around today.
The millennium-old shout-out doesn’t end there. The Bluetooth logo—that cryptic symbol in a blue oval printed on the box your phone came in—is actually the initials of Harald Bluetooth written in Scandinavian runes.
The Web’s go-to site for acquiring Justin Bieber branded duct tape and oddly shaped potato chips might be excused for including the “e” prefix in its name. The nearly 20-year-old site was born in a technological era when “e” was the accepted prefix to indicate to all things “electronic.” But as it turns out, eBay’s “e” stands for “echo,” and its “bay” just stands for itself—and neither “echo” nor “bay” has anything to do with online bidding.
The site that would become eBay started life as the more aptly dubbed “AuctionWeb,” which was part of a larger personal site run by former Apple software engineer Pierre Omidyar.
As AuctionWeb grew in popularity, Omidyar decided to spin it off into its own entity, which he wanted to call “Echo Bay” after his consulting firm, Echo Bay Technology Group. Unfortunately the echobay.com domain was already taken, so Omidyar shortened it to the available “ebay.com.”
Takeaway: Sometimes success means just settling for what’s available.
We all do it: We use the awesome power of Google to correct our common misspellings. For example, I never spell the word “bureaucrat” correctly on the first try, but I can depend on Mountain View’s algorithm to provide the correct spelling whenever I plug in “buerocrat” or some other massacred linguistic approximation.
Unfortunately, this spelling-correction wizardry was unavailable to the site’s founders in the 1990s.
The word googol (note the third “o” and the lack of an “e”) is a mathematical term for the number 10 to the 100th power (or a 1 followed by 100 zeros). Cofounder, and current sad CEO Larry Page decided that it would be the perfect name for his new company as it reflected the nearly unimaginable vastness the Web.
However, the two-“o” “Google” we’re familiar with today is the result of an accidental misspelling by one of Page’s classmates, Sean Anderson. David Koller, another Stanford classmate of Page who was around at the dawn of Google recalls the story behind Google’s name on his personal Stanford site:
[Fellow Stanford student] Sean [Anderson] and Larry were in their office, using the whiteboard, trying to think up a good name—something that related to the indexing of an immense amount of data. 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 the name “google.com”...
Amazon.com is the global superstore that places everything from diapers to streaming original sitcoms to questionably legal botanicals a single click away from increasing your credit card debt. But what does the name “Amazon” have to do with the site’s original niche—books—let alone with its expanded mission as an electronics manufacturer and a seller of all things sellable?
Well, they’re both big, and they both start with the right letter.
Founder Jeff Bezos had originally dubbed his company “Cadabra” (as in “abracadabra”). But when his lawyer misheard the name as “cadaver” (as in “dead person”), Bezos decided his company needed a new, less morgue-friendly name.
Back in the pre-Google world, a company’s position near the front of alphabetized phonebooks (and of early web approximations of phonebooks) was still a chief concern. “A” was where you wanted to be.
So Bezos went rummaging through the dictionary’s first chapter in search of a likely business name—and eventually settled on “Amazon.” Why? According to him, because it referred to the biggest river in the world. The biggest by a long shot.
On a tangential note: Take a look at the subliminal messaging in the current Amazon logo, which features a slightly askew smirk beneath the Amazon name. Note how the smirk resembles an arrow connecting the first “a” in “Amazon” to the letter “z,” subtly driving home the point that the store delivers everything from A to Z.
Etsy is the multi-million-dollar virtual marketplace for occasionally insane homespun crafts. But what is an “etsy” exactly? If you think it’s just some made-up nonsense word that has no meaning, you’re absolutely correct.
Launched in 2005, the company came about at a time when natural language URLs were already in short supply. Etsy cofounder Robert Kalin has admitted that “etsy” was simply an available nothing word, but one that sorta has some nice happenstances of translation.
“I wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch,” Kalin said in a 2010 interview with Reader’s Digest. “I was watching Fellini’s 8½ and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say etsi a lot. It means ‘oh, yes.’ And in Latin, it means ‘and if.’”
So the company’s name means “and if” in a dead language. Try as Kalin might to justify it, Etsy still means nothing.
Though it wasn’t the first home console system, the Nintendo Entertainment System was the biggest of its day. But few American children who spent the late 1980s addicted to goomba-stomping were aware that the Kyoto-based Nintendo Corporation had been in existence for more than a century.
Nintendo traces its roots back to 1889, when the company produced hand-made playing cards painted on mulberry tree bark and used in a game known as Hanafuda. Hanafuda is a game of chance that dates back several centuries and is closely associated with gambling and the Yakuza (indeed, the name ya-ku-za translates as “8-9-3,” a losing hand in a Blackjack-like game). The name “Nintendo” in Japanese roughly translates as “leave luck to heaven” or “in heaven’s hands.”
So how did playing cards eventually lead to Mario Kart? After trying its hand (excuse the pun) at numerous endeavors over the next century, the company eventually found its way into the toy industry, which by the 1970s was a natural jumping-off point into the burgeoning video game market.
Should Nintendo’s video game future falter on the trainwreck of a system known as Wii U, it can always fall back on its roots as a maker of playing cards, which it continues to produce for the Japanese market.
Nokia began its existence far from the world of mobile technology—as a paper mill. The nascent company’s second groundwood pulp mill was built near the town of Nokia (about 100 miles northwest of Helsinki), which the company decided to adopt as its name when it became a public share company in 1871.
Over the decades, Nokia dabbled in all sorts of industrial ventures, which eventually led to its forming a telecommunications department in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, the company had become one of the first manufacturers of early mobile phones, such as the nearly 2-pound Mobira Cityman 900 in 1987.
Flash-forward to 2013, and the company manufactures mobile phones with some spec-tacular imaging hardware that is unfortunately attached to a Windows phone. And if everything goes Microsoft’s way, Nokia may remain married to Windows phones for a looong time.
In its first decade of existence, the company that would go on to create the Walkman, the PlayStation, and various other forms of bathtub-proof gadgetry went by the name Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo—or in English, “Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company.”
The company’s founders felt that they needed to change its decidedly Japanese name if it was to successfully compete in the developed postwar markets of Europe and the United States—especially at a time when, in those markets, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap junk.
In a bid for Romanized respectability, the company’s founders chose the word “Sony” as a combination of the Latin word sonus, meaning “sound,” and the common American colloquialism “sonny-boy.”
The first Sony-branded product was the TR-55 transistor radio, which went on sale in 1955 as Japan’s first portable radio.
We wish her the best, but Yahoo’s best years may far behind it.
Indeed, those heady days are so long gone that most people forget when the company’s curated list of links was quite a handy tool to have around.
The company began as a hobby. Stanford University Ph.D. candidates David Filo and Jerry Yang kept a list of all their favorite sites. As the list began to grow plump with categories and subcategories, the pair realized they might have a service that would be useful to early Web surfers.
Though they originally matter-of-factly dubbed their service “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” the pair eventually decided on the fun exclamation-enlivened brand “Yahoo!”—which was bacronymed to encompass “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle” (the full name lacking an exclamation point, for some reason).
According to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, the largest electronics firm in the world picked up its name in the most casual of ways.
As Jobs and Wozniak were mulling over a name for their nascent company, Jobs had just returned from a visit to a communal apple farm. Off the cuff, he proposed the name “Apple Computer.” The term, he explained to Isaacson “sounded fun, spirited, and not intimidating. Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer.’ Plus, it would get us ahead of Atari in the phonebook.”
Once again, that phonebook was a big deal. Which might also explain why Google finds multiple companies answering to the name Aardvark Electronics.
An end to nonsense names?
The past decade of tech names has been an unimpressive mess of language. Arguably, the biggest contributor to the disarray has been the dearth of available dot-com domain names.
Perhaps the new-released bounty of top-level domain names will shake things up. Perhaps companies will take advantage of their new freedom of URL and begin to veer away from the plague of nonsense.