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June 13, 2006

Old Names for New Things

Greek HelmetWhen it comes to naming their products, technology companies love Greek and Latin word endings. Neuter noun endings (“-on” or “-ion” in Greek; “-um” or “-ium” in Latin) seem to be most popular. Think Pentium, Athlon, Turion, Itanium.

Roman ArchitectureWhy Greek and Latin for high tech? The earliest scientists of the Western world wrote in Greek and Latin, and even after the Western Roman empire broke up and the Byzantine empire shrank to almost nothing and Constantinople fell to the Turks, these were the languages that scientists and scholars from different nations used to communicate with each other.

They’re also languages structured in such a way as to make naming new things easy. Take a root, add a suffix, and presto! You’ve named something new (trademark availability is another matter, however.)

You can do this just as easily with English roots and suffixes, but it just doesn’t sound as impressive. So we have submarines (from Latin sub, “under” and marinus, “of the sea”) instead of “underseas.”

And while any self-respecting classicist rolls on the floor laughing at “scientific Latin,” English speakers have become used to Latinate names for new discoveries, or words like “automobile” and “motorcycle” which combine Greek and Latin roots.

Periodic Table of the ElementsSo it’s natural to name microchips as if they were new additions to the Periodic Table of Elements. Fermium, Mendelevium, Nobelium… Pentium. In the Latin the Romans spoke, the “-ium” ending in particular denotes an abstract created from a concrete noun or a verb.

Microchips are concrete enough, but very few people heading out to buy a new computer are going to worry about that little detail. They probably won’t even think about the fact that the chip manufacturers are following scientific naming conventions which date back hundreds of years. They just know the name sounds right for what it is.

For more on language and linguistics, I recommend the following blogs:

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Posted by Diane Prange at June 13, 2006 8:55 AM
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