Monday, March 28, 2011

What’s in a Name?

If you're like myself, or my father or mother for that matter, you probably had a little red wagon when you were a kid. It was probably called a Radio Flyer. Did you every wonder why? What did radio have to do with a child's wagon? As for flying, it never went much faster than you could pull it over the sidewalk or lawn.
So, why call it Radio Flyer? Well, immigrant Antonio Pasin, inventor of the little red wagon formerly known as Model #18, needed something catchy and thoroughly modern sounding in a name. The time was the 1920s, and the two truly hot technologies coming to commercial prominence were radio broadcasting and human flight.
Other immigrants, such as Marconi, Tesla, and General” Davide Sarnoff, where making distant sounds, and not inconsiderable money, appear out of thin air. People like Charles Lindbergh and Glenn Curtiss were finding some things to do with "aeroplanes", besides dropping grenades ineffectually onto the farm fields of WWI Europe. They were setting records, zipping across entire oceans in barely more than a day, and swiftly delivering mail across continents. People turned out at country fairs, and paid good money, to see "Barnstormers" perform death-defying aerial magic. What name could have been more trendy and cool than Radio Flyer? It even looks pretty good today at Check out their present retro/modern as tomorrow new/old logo.
Now, every generation since the dawn of the industrial revolution has stood somehow transfixed by the latest technology to take off in the commercial market. At the dawn of television, the public was treated to television programs with characters like Captain Video; a rocket pilot, not a camera man. A couple of generations before the renamed Model #18, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked, "Is it a fact- or have I dreamed it- that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!" He's referring, of course, to the telegraph. The year was 1851. Hawthorne, like Teilhard de Chardin in his treatise “The Phenomenon of Man” wrote a century after the great poet’s heralding of a new age, foresaw the advent of today’s Internet.
Whatever. Today, just about anything with a dot-com in its name is apt to predispose us to a favorable view of it. Things cyber and virtual have become so trendy, the words have almost lost their original meaning. In fact, the word cyber practically has no meaning! It's borrowed from the word cybernetics, itself an adaption of the Greek word for a helmsman, kybernetes, and was coined by mathematician Norbert Wiener. The year was 1948, well before the advent of the microchip, and rose from Wiener's theories about the similarities between steering mechanisms for naval torpedoes and human mental processes.
Everything has a history. No technology emerges into the world as though from the Void. A company, technology or product with a name that contains dot-com, or for that matter, video, radio, steam or steel, is no more or less likely to be excellent or useful than one with the word ACME in it. But, names can sound cool. They can evoke emotions and spark notions. They can even offer a sense of dominion over what is named and pride in naming it. Naming things was, after all, one of the first gifts that G-d is alleged to have given to Man after He made the first Woman.
What’s in a name?