Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why Wi-Fi?

This was news to me, and I am sad to say that I had not even thought much about it. The word Wi-Fi ... where did it come from?

Back in November, BoingBoing published a little piece by Cory Doctorow in which he in turn quotes one Phil Belanger:

Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything.

It is not an acronym. There is no meaning.

Wi-Fi and the ying yang style logo were invented by Interbrand. We (the founding members of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, now called the Wi-Fi Alliance) hired Interbrand to come up with the name and logo that we could use for our interoperability seal and marketing efforts. We needed something that was a little catchier than "IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence".


The only reason that you hear anything about "Wireless Fidelity" is some of my colleagues in the group were afraid. They didn't understand branding or marketing. hey could not imagine using the name "Wi-Fi" without having some sort of literal explanation. So we compromised and agreed to include the tag line "The Standard for Wireless Fidelity" along with the name. This was a mistake and only served to confuse people and dilute the brand.

This is a little weird, isn't it? A word that's in common use today was invented as a brand name. Of course, that's nothing new: (insert long list here of one-time name brands). FWIW, it's interesting how quickly Wi-Fi took off.

Quiz: what does the term Wi-Fi actually mean? Extra points for providing both a formal and informal definition. (Hint: try Wikipedia.)

Anyway, the kinda weird part is that it came complete with a kind of back-etymology that, if one is to believe the quotation, was entirely invented. Based on a pun.

Doctorow has an earlier post in which he first noted this story, and got, uh, many comments contesting his assertion. Glenn Fleishman, a guy with some authority in this field (I guess), makes the following observation. (I am not a lawyer; please do not take the following as legal advice. Haha.)
Wi-Fi is a trademark and thus can't mean anything that's not arbitrary in the realm in which the trademark is coined. Wi-Fi had to have no prior meaning, so it's de facto meaningless.
The phrase "wireless fidelity" comes in at about a million hits on Google at the moment, so clearly the pseudo-etymology took hold. The people who invented the term certainly can't complain that others mistakenly believe the etymology they invented, although they do seem to be doing just that. Someone notes in one of these posts that at least part of the reason for the pseudo-etymology was "when they started getting barraged by writers whose editors demanded that all acronyms must be spelled out." Heh. Been there. As regards that, I liked Doctorow's comment: even if Wi-Fi stood for wireless fidelity, what would it help you to know that? Excellent point. Been there, too.

We now return to our regular programming.

(All of this orginally via Raymond Chen.)


Anonymous said...

It gets worse! Metro-Fi is a company that wireless enables entire cities.

So they have dropped the important "wireless" part, but kept the meaningless "fidelity" part of Wi-Fi.


Ninj said...

I originally believed it stood for 'WIreless Free Internet', as the service was offered for free in many hotels and public meeting places. It was only when lots of subscription based or ad hoc charged services began to appear, that I decided to investigate the meaning. I guess I'm just too much of an optimist for this world........

earth1 said...

I never liked the word Wifi because I originally thought it was supposed to mean a transmission standard for wireless hifi audio (meaning high fidelity audio, presumably for music).. I didn't mind it in that context, but then when I saw everybody using it as a term to just mean wireless internet, I hated to see the term scewed and it's original meaning lost. Now only 10 or so years later, almost nobody will remember the word hifi. They will think it came from wifi and that wifi came first. It's bad enough that mp3 has eroded the standards of music fidelity. The entire meaning of the world hifi lost? Well, it makes me really sad.. (I wish they'd asked ME before coming up with the name).

Unknown said...

It amazes me and fills me with shagrin (I hear that word often, but find little on it...) the NEED for words (sounds,things etc.) to have a root, absolute meaning, or any meaning at all. It should be ok to make things up, just cause. "A little nonsense, now and then, is cherished by the wisest men."
So it should be ok that this particular "Fi" meant nothing until the coining of "WiFi"

Fishmonger said...

Maybe you should key in CHAGRIN.

David said...

All words are invented. They don't grow on trees. Inventedness does not contravene meaningfulness.