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The origins of technology brand names

Sometimes funny, often meaningful, and sometimes just random chance – here’s how your favourite technology companies came to be called by their now household names.

Tech is a part of your everyday life. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here, reading this story if it weren’t. And like everything about life, it comes with its own variety and flavour. Just look at the names of all the big tech companies out there. We have come to live with them without thinking about why they are called what they are called. But as long as we are here, we won’t let any tech question go unanswered. So let’s dive into the story behind the names of some of the biggest tech companies out there.

Samsung

samsungLet’s start off with an easy one. Samsung’s name literally means ‘three stars’ in Korean and was particularly selected to represent the three virtues of ‘big, numerous and powerful’ (just like the stars in the sky). Samsung was initially into food manufacturing and sale, including dried fish, vegetables, noodles and fruit. And today the same company is into fields like aerospace, insurance and finance. Up until 1993, all of Samsung’s logos had the three stars on them. Keeping it might have put some context to the name for everyone!

Nokia

Another easy one on the list is the former (and maybe future?) phone company Nokia, which is popularly known to have started off not in the tech business, but as a wood pulp mill on the banks of river Nokianvirta a few miles away from the town of Nokia. Creative much?

nokia

AppleApple logo

Of course, there are a lot of theories around the internet that Apple was chosen by Steve Jobs as an homage to Alan Turing. That isn’t really true. First of all, the bite into the Apple in the logo was simply because of representing scale and conveying that it’s not a cherry or any other rounded fruit. But then, why call it Apple? Well, in his own words, “Partially because I like Apples a lot and partially because Apple is ahead of Atari in the phonebook and I used to work at Atari”. Some would say that this is precisely why there are so many newborns these days with names starting with A.

LG

Like others featured in this list, LG Electronics didn’t really start with it’s current name. It used to be Goldstar in 1958 in the aftermath of the Korean War. At least, it started off with the goal to build electronic devices. A sister company was known as ‘Lak-Hui’ (which is pronounced as Lucky) and that was where Lucky Goldstar originates from. Goldstar officially adopted the LG name and logo in 1995 and that is also currently used for the tagline ‘Life’s Good’.

Goldstar

Sony

Sony was originally founded as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K (meaning Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation) or Totsuko in short. After multiple successful products they decided to go global. At this point they strongly considered keeping their initials as the global brand name but that clashed with the railway company Tokyo Kyuko. Carrying forward the acronym was also rejected because during a visit to the United States, one of the founders Akio Morita discovered the Americans found ‘Totsuko’ quite hard to produce. Ultimately, the name Sony was chosen as a mix of two words – ‘Sonus’, the Latin word that is the root for sonic and sound and ‘Sonny’, a common American slang from that time that was used to call a boy. Also, ‘sonny boy’ was a popular loan word being used in Japanese around that time that denoted presentable smart young men, which the founders considered themselves to be!

playstation

Nintendo

Brace yourselves for this one because it’s going to get complicated in here. Initially, Nintendo Koppai was founded to make and sell playing cards and was looking to start a new line for which it settled on the name Tengu. Tengu is a mythological Japanese folklore character depicted with a large nose. Still here? Good. The cards were known by the word ‘hana’ which meant nose and coincidentally, also meant flower. So these cards came to be known as hanafuda cards and Hanafuda came to be the popular card game. Now, Nintendo in Kanji can mean ‘the temple of free hanafuda’ or ‘the company that is allowed to make (or sell) hanafuda’. The rest is history.

Amazon

Jeff Bezos initially wanted to call his new website Cadabra, as in abracadabra because he wanted the site to work so fast and easy that people would want to associate it with magic. In fact, the company was registered with this very name in 1994, but eventually a year later, the site went live with the name Amazon, borrowed from the largest river in the world (by discharge of water). That clearly stated the ambitions Bezos had for the website. So why was Cadabra dropped? Because Bezos eventually realised that it sounded too similar to cadaver.

Google

Oh, Cmon! You probably know this already! Google is a deliberate misspelling of the word Googol that represents the number 10100, to convey the large amount of data that the founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted to make available. But what isn’t entirely popular knowledge is that the company had the initial nickname ‘BackRub’. Imagine – ‘I just BackRubbed it’. *silent shudder*

Mozilla

Back in 1994, a team at Netscape held a meeting to ideate on a new browser to take on NCSA’s Mosaic browser. They wanted to build something that would crush the competition. Enter Godzilla, and combined with Mosaic they arrived at the current day name of Mozilla.

mozilla

Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s arrival at its name almost rivals Nintendo’s. It essentially started as Nupedia but due to a drastically slow pace of content creation (12 pages in the first year), they looked elsewhere for inspiration. The main idea that they agreed upon was Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb (which was one of the first user editable websites) to nurture interest in Nupedia by allowing people to edit the content. But the word Wiki goes beyond that. Ward Cunningham himself arrived at the name after landing at Honolulu airport and being told to board the WikiWiki Shuttle, where Wiki is Hawaiian for fast.

Wiki

Asus

Another simple one on the list, Asus is inspired from Pegasus. According to the company’s own explanation it “embodies the strength, purity, and adventurous spirit of this fantastic creature, and soars to new heights with each new product it creates.” Much explanation, very logical.

Skype

With Skype, it’s another classic case of settling for a name after the original intended one was already taken. Skype, as it appears, is a straightforward combination of sky and peer-to-peer. They had originally shortened it to Skyper, but since that wasn’t available, Skype it was and Skype it is.

Yahoo

This one was initially founded as ‘Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web’. A year later the domain Yahoo.com was registered and the company founded. Initial impression would suggest to people that the name is based on the traditional meaning of the word, but Yahoo actually expands to Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. Don’t worry, the founders loved the original name too.

Twitter

Another pretty well known one, what with the logo and everything. Initially, Twitter was supposed to be named twttr, inspired by Flickr. Founder Jack Dorsey was always fascinated by how cities communicate in real time and wanted to build an SMS service to communicate with a small group. The initial name that they had decided was Status. “We did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word ‘twitch,’ because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But ‘twitch’ is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was,” Dorsey told the LA Times in 2009.

eBay

Originally, eBay was known as AuctionWeb. After unexpected growth (as much as 10 times in a year’s time) founder Pierre Omidyar wanted to change the name. The company was owned by his consulting firm Echo Bay Technology Group and Omidyar wanted to rename the website to echobay.com. But since that already belonged to Echo Bay Mines, a gold mining company, he shortened it to his second choice, eBay.com.

ebay

Spotify

This one is pretty interesting. The company was started in Sweden. If you check Google Translate, Spotify doesn’t mean anything in Swedish. So what’s the name for? The founders of Spotify, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon were busy thinking of names for their new company when one of the names suggested was misheard as Spotify. Well, that sort of stuck to their heads and a quick Google and domain search later, they realised that it was all theirs to claim. They were initially too embarrassed to admit this as the story behind the name, so a little fabrication later, Spotify is also known to have originated from the words Spot and Identify.

spotify

Ubuntu

According to the official website, “Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It also means ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. The Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers.” That is a very noble notion for an open source software and hence it was decided to be the perfect fit.

Instagram

The founders wanted to convey the feeling that one gets from the ‘Instant cameras’ of the olden days, something that we take for granted today. They also wanted to incorporate the feeling of sending a telegram over the wire, which is what sharing photos on Instagram felt like. Hence (Insta)nt+Tele(gram) = Instagram.

Xerox

Xerox was originally founded as the Haloid Photographic Company, which originally manufactured photographic paper and equipment. It was around 1938 when an independent physicist Chester Carlson invented a process to print images using an electrically charged drum and dry powder ‘toner’. Haloid’s ‘founder’ saw the promise in his invention and acquired it for commercial production. To differentiate the process, Haloid created the term Xerography which has Greek roots that mean ‘dry writing’, which eventually led to the name Xerox Corporation in 1961.

zerox

Apache

The Apache Software Foundation, that maintains the Apache HTTP server, draws it name in respect to the Native American Apache Nation. Also, the founders got started by applying patches to code written for the NCSA’s httpd daemon. The result – ‘A PATCHy’ server. Yeah, we know.

And more

Explaining names of the likes of Facebook and Microsoft would be an insult to Digit readers. On the other hand, we did really run out space with this one, so if you have any names and interesting stories behind them, let us know!

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee