Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Modern 'Brandology'

Here I am, talking about names again.

Nowadays, we use many IT words and some have grown to become part of our daily tech vocabulary. For example, when we need to search for something, we "Google" and when we need to find an answer, we "Wiki". "Blackberry" is the synonym for mobile email and "iPod" is another word of MP3 player.

The bottom line is that commercial names were so given because the companies believe that they are attractive. However, I have been curious about the origins of some of these names and that has prompted me to go on an etymological journey which has proven to be rather insightful. Here are some:


Why Apple? I don't see any resemblance of the fruit in any of the Apple products other than in the logo.

When Steve Jobs went into business in 1976, he and his partner needed a name for their company. At that time, Jobs was involved in running an orchard. When he suggested "Apple Computer", his partner assumed that his work at the orchard had inspired the name. However, his partner was concerned about copyright issues with that name. So they brainstormed on other more unique and tech-sounding names such as Executek. In the end, they did not take very long to decide that nothing was going to beat "Apple".

Today, "Apple" is a well-down brand and at the mention of the name, beautifully designed gadgets pop in our heads. Perhaps one day, our children will ask us "why is this fruit named after the computer?"


In 1995, Ward Cunningham came up with an easy way for software developers to discuss software patterns on the World Wide Web. He called it "Wiki Wiki Web", presumably trying to preserved the same abbreviation of "WWW".

Cunningham was once told by a staff at a Hawaii airport to take 'wiki wiki" shuttle bus to another terminal. He came to know that "wiki wiki" was actually a Hawaiian term for "quick". He had the intention to name his web "quick-web" but thought that "wiki wiki" was a better substitute for "quick".

I am glad that he made that choice as "Wiki" is a lot more catchy.

Today, Wikipedia, which is a portmanteau of the terms "wiki" and "encyclopedia"
, has become a widely used technology for creating collaborative websites. The idea is rather simple where people all over the world come together and contribute contents to this giant online encyclopedia.

There are currently 262 language editions of Wikipedia and it is used by millions of people. Its popularity has also invited criticism that it is a breeding ground for plagiarism. It is also being said to be a source of inaccuracies due to the lack of editing.

Incidentally, it has just been reported in the news that an Irish undergrad posted a fake quote by Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer died on March 28. Very quickly, the made-up quote was being used and cited. He was shocked by the result of his 'experiment' and said that the fake quote would have gone down history if he did not come forward to clarify.

Talking about portmanteau, it seems that this fanciful way of gelling two unrelated words to form a new term is becoming very popular in today's modern "brandology".

I always find "Google" an adorable name and puerile to a certain extent. In fact, we can trace its origin to a 9-year boy.

"Google" came from a maths term "Googol".

A googol is a very huge number. I won't do it here but you can try writing one googol which is,
digit 1 followed by one hundred zeroes, ie, 1,000,000,000 .....(do it when you are really bored).

The term "googol" was first used by P
rofessor Edward Kasner in 1938 at the suggestion of his 9-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta.

"Googolplex", on the other hand, is a even huger number which is digit 1 followed by a googol of zeroes. If I were to write one googolplex in numerical expression in this article, you will just going to see zeroes and more zeroes across the whole page! (try writing it when you are really bored... and insane!)

Now I can understand why Google named its headquarter in California "Googleplex".


A "BlackBerry" is a wireless handheld device or smartphone, popularly known for its push-email functionality.

But why "BlackBerry" and not "StrawBerry" or "BlueBerry"? Why "Berry" in the first place?

Apparently, "Berry" was inspired by the buttons on the device which looked like tiny seeds in a strawberry. The company, Research In Motion (RIM) decided that strawberry was not right and went for "BlackBerry" instead. They thought that this name went along better with the color of the device.

I personally don't think "StrawBerry" is a nice name for a tech gadget too. Perhaps it can be reserved for some 'Cloned in China' models.

BlackBerry offers the ability to read/receive email on the go and the device has been known to be infamously addictive. When President Obama took office in the White House, his security team apparently had to bend the "no BlackBerry" rule because he was so attached to the gadget.

It is no surprise why it has earned unflattering nicknames such as "CrackBerry", a reference to the street drug form of cocaine known as crack.
Many users simply refer to BlackBerry devices as "berries" and "berry thumb" or "berry blister" are terms used to describe the soreness that occurs from handling the keyboard.

In Singapore, BlackBerry is also well-liked. Perhaps, we can coin our own term such as "berry shiok" (adj. a Singaporean colloquial expression denoting extreme pleasure or the highest quality).


Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging web application. It allows users to send and read updates which are not more than 140 characters each. These updates are known as "tweets".

"Tweet" actually came from "twttr", which is the sound made by birds. It is presumed that birds communicate with short burst of information, that goes "twttr", "twttr", "twttr"... and that appropriately describes the use of the application, which gives brief information/updates on the go.

The popularity of Twitter was best noted in US during the forum for the 44th US president's campaign.


Mozilla Firefox is a commonly used web browser. It is usually just known as "Firefox".

Originally, the "fox" was actually a "bird" with the brand name "Firebird". However, due to the presence of another similarly-named application, it was renamed "Firefox".

Firefox is another name for Red Panda. But why "Firefox"? I guess I will never know because all that Mozilla would say was "It's easy to remember. It sounds good. It's unique".

Wouldn't you like Firefox much better than Firebird!


Before 1992, IBM used to name their products by boring model numbers, such as IBM 5150.

The name "ThinkPad" was inspired by leather-bound pocket notepads which were issued to all IBM employees. On the cover of those notepads, the corporate motto "Think" was embossed. The combination of "Think" and "Notepad" led to "ThinkPad".

Apparently, the "old school" within IBM was initially against the new name since all previous models were referred by model numbers. However, the "ThinkPad" brand name became so popular that the rest was history.

I was just wondering if "Think" was printed on every employee's corporate-issued coffee mugs, would "ThinkPad" have become "ThinkMug"?


Facebook is a social networking application on the net which started in 2004. Since then, it experienced explosive international growth and now it has a user base of more than 200 million.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room in 2004. However, it is believed that the seed of the idea was planted in him during his high school days.

Back then in high school, he would receive his copy of students' directory. It was nothing more than a listing of students' photos and their contact information. Even though the cover of the directory said "The Photo Address Book", the students affectionately called it "The Facebook", presumably because of the photos in there.

Facebook is so widely used that even the courts endorse it.

In Dec 2008, the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory ruled that Facebook is a valid protocol to serve court notices to defendants. In Mar 2009, the New Zealand High Court allowed the serving of legal papers via Facebook.

In Singapore, politicians are also using it to promote their causes or just staying connected. The government feedback unit "REACH" has a Facebook account to engage and reach out to the people. It currently has close to 2000 members.


Bluetooth is a universal standard used in transmitting information between two devices wirelessly. It is commonly found in mobile phones and notebooks.

The name came from the 10th Century King of Denmark, King Harald Blatand (Blatand is translated as Bluetooth in English). He was known for uniting Norway and Denmark in the same way Bluetooth unites devices.

Legend has it that King Harald loved to eat blueberries, so much so that his teeth would be stained with the colour. It was believed that he earned his name that way.

Originally, "Bluetooth" was the codename for a yet to be marketed technology. It took a long time for the working group to decide on the official name. Many names were suggested and one of them was "Flirt", which came with a catch phrase "getting close, but not touching." To cut the long story short, the group eventually decided to use the temporary codename "Bluetooth" as the official name, after a long drawn naming process.

I cannot imagine if "Flirt" was chosen instead. Will we then be saying "Can my mobile phone flirt with yours, please?" ... Eeeew!

The above are just some examples of popular names for technology companies or gadgets and the list is long and changing fast. Whatever it is, a name is a name. Whether it is meant for a person, a place, a business or a product, people should not take naming lightly.

Many years ago, I came across a shop in Malaysia with a trade name "Tahi" which is a rough translation from "大喜" (loosely translated as 'great happiness' in Chinese). You may not think that there is anything wrong with that name until someone tells you that "Tahi" actually means... pardon my language, "shit" in Malay. That was really an "OMG" moment for me.

When it comes to naming, one cannot be too careful because it is just not easy to get a safe name, let alone a good name.


More articles on naming:
Moo Moo & Baa Baa
What's In A Gr8 Name?
What's In A Name?

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