The true stories behind tech's strangest terms
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.
Image credit: flickr/born1945
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.
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.
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.
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).
While the imagery of a goblin-like cave monster seems awfully apt, there's actually more to the term than meets the eye. The word "troll," you see, has a rarely used alternate meaning -- as Merriam-Webster puts it: "to fish by trailing a lure or baited hook from a moving boat."
With that in mind, it's easy to see how the Web-centric meaning came to be. Of course, the added visual of a hideous hook-nosed beast certainly doesn't hurt.
From Wikipedia to WikiLeaks, our world is chock-full of wiki. But aside from a fun way to verbalize the sound of a record scratch, what the wiki is a wiki?
For the answer, we need look no further than the wiki on "wiki" at Wikipedia (try saying that five times fast). As the "wiki" wiki explains it, a wiki is a site "powered by wiki software" that lets users "add, modify, or delete its content via a Web browser."
But where did "wiki" weawy owiginate? Er, sorry, really originate -- all these w-sounds are turning me into Elmer Fudd. Credit for the first wiki is commonly given to a guy named Ward Cunningham, who came up with a site called WikiWikiWeb in 1995.
Ward was wooed by the word wiki when he traveled to Hawaii. While there, he says, an airport employee told him to look for a "wiki wiki bus" that'd take him between terminals. The worker explained to him that "wiki wiki" meant "quick."
Ward went on to redefine "wiki" as "the simplest online database that could possibly work." His WikiWikiWeb site laid the groundwork for the wiki-style sites we know today, with community-based contributors and editors and an emphasis on internal cross-linking.
"Wikipedia would not be as successful as it is now had I named WikiWikiWeb 'electronic-encyclopedia,'" Ward theorizes.
At the very least, it would have been far less fun to say.
The word "ping" has blossomed out of Internet culture and come to represent a broader form of communication: "Ping me when you want to grab to lunch." "Ping me with your number." "Ping me when you figure out what 'ping' means."
Rest assured, though: Ping's roots reside in undeniably geeky soil.
Ping, in its current form, traces back to a Unix-based network administration tool created in the early 80s. The program sends a data packet to a network-connected computer and then measures how long it takes for the system to respond.
Ping's author, Mike Muuss -- a senior scientist at the U. S. Army Research Laboratory until his death in the year 2000 -- discussed Ping's etymology on his work-affiliated website.
"I named [Ping] after the sound that a sonar makes, inspired by the whole principle of echo-location," Muuss said. "In college, I'd done a lot of modeling of sonar and radar systems, so the 'Cyberspace' analogy seemed very apt."
Though some people associate Ping with the acronym "Packet InterNet Grouper," Muuss said that connotation was created after the fact -- possibly by a colleague of his -- and was not relevant at the time of the program's conception.
Gee, I wish I could find some information on acai berries and ways to increase the girth of my, erm, baseball bat. Oh, wait -- I can! It's all in the spam folder of my trusty inbox.
"Spam" has become such a common thing in our tech-centric society that most of us don't think twice about what it truly means. The tale of the term, though, is actually quite amusing: Spam, according to most popular accounts, comes not from the questionable canned meat but rather from a 70s-era Monty Python sketch.
In the sketch -- aired originally on British TV -- the word "spam" is repeated ad nauseam and then inserted randomly into sentences to the point where it becomes hard to understand their actual meanings. The credits for the clip even show the word interspersed throughout the names of the cast and crew, making them pleasingly difficult to read.
Funny stuff -- though given the negative connotation the term's now developed, I suspect the people over at Hormel aren't laughing.
While there's no definitive recipe for the origins of the Internet cookie, we can piece together some likely ingredients to get a pretty good idea of the word's source.
So why's it called a cookie? Well, not because it's tasty. The most common explanation suggests the term was derived from the world of Unix. In Unix, a "magic cookie" refers to a chunk of data that's passed between two programs. See the resemblance?
As for how the word "cookie" originally came to be, that answer's a little more murky. Some have speculated that the tech-centric usage of "cookie" comes from the notion of leaving tiny crumbs behind, as you might do when eating an E.L. Fudge; others tie the term to the fortune cookie and its use of an embedded message within a neatly wrapped package.
Is anyone else getting hungry?