Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Consider two prefixes: i and e, both in lowercase, e. e. cummings-style. Once they were emblematic of all things new and shiny and dot-com-y. Where are they now?

e- still has its webby connotations, quite possibly because e-mail is still prevalent. We still have eBay, eHarmony, esurance, Epinions, eFileCabinet and others, though perhaps not as many as one might expect.

i-, on the other hand, was blatantly hijacked by Apple. It used to mean "internet-" or something, but through some masterstroke of Steve Jobs's patented legerdemain, it now means "cool, shiny and Apple-y". In fact, according to Wikipedia, the name "iPod" was already trademarked, for internet kiosks, when freelance copywriter Vinnie Chieco decided the prototype reminded him of 2001, A Space Odyssey, particularly the phrase "Open the pod bay door, Hal!" and proposed the name. How the initial i got attached is not clear, at least not to me.

While Jobs didn't come up with the name himself, he must have made the final call on going with it. The sleight-of-hand was being able to market something with no direct internet connectivity with such a name (the much webbier iTunes didn't come along for another couple of years).

Two other affixes from the era still seem to have life in them. The notion of calling the customized view of FooCorp "myFooCorp" lives on here and there, not to mention mySpace.

And, of course, .com has more or less become punctuation.

Finally, there's camelCase. When I was starting out, there were still widely-used programming languages with ridiculously short limits on names. Classic FORTRAN was limited to eight characters and BASIC dialects varied but could be even worse. Single-case, conventionally ALL CAPS, was still prevalent as well.

[You got around these restrictions by dropping any letter you could -- "parameters" became PARMS, "first name index" might be FSTNMIDX.  Well-organized FORTRAN code typically built variable names up from abbreviated parts and had block comments in key places explaining what all the abbreviations meant.

Early versions of FORTRAN also had the convention that the first letter of the name indicated whether a variable was integer or floating point, so you'd get names like IRANK, since plain RANK would be floating point.  While that led to a lot of names starting with I, I doubt that's where the dot-com-era i- prefix comes from.  --D.H. October 2015]

Two popular languages were less restrictive: C and Pascal. C coding style called for all-lowercase names except for constants, with underscores serving as spaces: my_variable_name. Pascal, on the other hand, didn't allow underscores in names (or maybe they were just considered uncool?). Instead, Pascal code used capitals to break up long names: MyVariableName.

I really don't know how mixed case came to be the dominant style, but it has. I still remember a TA (who would later spend some years working for Apple) complaining that my C-style names_with_underscores hurt his eyes and why didn't I do things TheRightWay. Fast forward a few years and if you want to look web.hip you have to go camelCase. Spaces are so old economy.

The astute reader may notice the subtle distinction between camelCase (starting with lowercase) and PascalCase (starting with uppercase). Both are used in actual code. For example, Java conventions call for names of classes to start with a capital and most other names to start with lowercase. I suspect that dot-commers chose lowercase (for the most part) because it just looked less conventional.

Whatever the reasons, it seems to have caught on, more so, in fact, than any of the particular prefixes.

How much dot-com-y goodness will fit in one name? What's the equivalent of a tall double half-caf soy vanilla latte? My guess is it would be somewhere around "", but I may have missed a step.

[A quick search reveals that "tall double half-caf soy vanilla latte" is small beans. The real bidding starts at "Venti, sugar-free, non-fat, vanilla soy, double shot, decaffinated, no foam, extra hot, Peppermint White Chocolate Peppermint Mocha with light whip, upside-down, 1 pump of peppermint, 1 and 3/8 pumps vanilla,180 degrees, heavy whip-cream, 3 ice cubes, 1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg sprinkled on top, with green sprinkles, lightly cinnamon dusted on, stirred, with no lid, double cupped, and a straw"]

No comments: