The true stories behind tech's strangest terms

Trolling for king salmon. Petersburg, Alaska. (Probably not the Internet troll you were expecting.) Credit: Image credit: flickr/born1945

You use words like "Bluetooth," "wiki" and "Wi-Fi" all the time, but do you know how those things actually got their names? You might be surprised to find out.

Tech terms can be funny things. Think about it: What does "Bluetooth" actually mean? Why do we call a piece of code that tracks us a "cookie"? And for the love of GOOG, what the hell is a "wiki"?

All these words have worked their way into our vernacular -- and all of us would have sounded like loons using them in casual conversation a few short years ago. (Cookie may be the exception, but it's all about context: If you told someone in the mid-90s that you were "clearing your cookies to avoid being tracked," then yes, you probably would have been committed.)

So where did some of the strangest sounding tech terms come from, and how did they get their unusual names? Grab yourself a cookie -- the sugar- and flour-made kind, that is -- and let's seek out some answers.

Bluetooth

It may sound like a description of a Smurf's lower molars, but the origin of the term "Bluetooth" has nothing to do with tiny blue people in white-colored hats (surprising, I know). The word actually dates back to 1996, when several companies were working together to come up with a standard system for short-range wireless communication technology.

As 2006 Bluetooth Hall of Fame inductee Jim Kardach recalls it, Intel -- where he worked in the late 90s -- was developing a system known as Business-RF, while Ericsson was working on one called MC-Link and Nokia on its own initiative called Low Power RF.

Kardach and reps from the other companies formed a special interest group to establish some common ground. As the story goes, Intel suggested Bluetooth as a temporary codename for the group -- just for internal use, until the members had time to come up with something more permanent.

According to Kardach, Bluetooth comes from the name of an ancient Danish king who went by the moniker Harald Bluetooth. And no, King B wasn't actually Papa Smurf in disguise; legend has it the dude just really loved blueberries and got his name because of his ever-so-sexy fruit-stained teeth.

What's significant about King Bluetooth, though, is the fact that he united different regions and allowed them to communicate with each other. See where this is going?

Despite marketing experts' best efforts to come up with a replacement name for Bluetooth, nothing else stuck. Some of the proposed alternatives supposedly included "Flirt" -- explained by the motto "getting close, but not touching" -- and PAN, which stood for Personal Area Networking.

In the end, the Bluetooth group decided to leave its king-inspired name in place. It's probably a good thing, too: Talking about putting a Flirt headset on your ear or hooking up a wireless PAN speaker just doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Wi-Fi

We talk about it all the time, but quick: What does the term "Wi-Fi" actually stand for? Answering "wireless fidelity" would be understandable -- but it'd also be wrong.

It's actually a bit of a trick question, mind you: Wi-Fi, as it turns out, doesn't stand for anything. Phil Belanger, a founding member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, has gone on the record as saying the term was nothing more than a catchy word created by a brand consulting firm.

The Alliance, according to Belanger, needed a name for the technology that was more memorable than "IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence." The company they hired came up with Wi-Fi and the now-ubiquitous corresponding logo.

The Alliance, however, worried people wouldn't accept a strange-sounding word without an explanation. As Belanger recalls it, members agreed to add a tag line to early marketing materials: "The Standard for Wireless Fidelity." That tag line was created after the fact, Belanger says -- a "clumsy attempt to come up with two words that matched 'Wi' and 'Fi.'" The line was dropped a year later.

Sorry, John Cusack.

Troll

Charlie Sheen may have turned it into a household word, but the term "troll" is all too familiar to anyone who's spent time surfing the salty waters of the World Wide Web.

A troll, according to the ever-useful UrbanDictionary.com, is a person who posts a "deliberately provocative message" in order to provoke "maximum disruption and argument" online. Maybe you've seen one lurking in the comments section of your favorite blog or social network (for some reason, they seem to love feasting on tech-oriented stories).

1 2 3 Page
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies