Cabinet of Curiosities is a series meant to explain some of the most prevailing mysteries out there. A lot of these "curiosities" involve seriously confusing scientific studies, so we're trying to break it down into layman's terms. Because nobody has time to decipher an entire science experiment when looking for a quick explanation online.
This week, we're answering a question about how our virtual assistants got their names.
Oprah. Madonna. Siri. Alexa. Cortana. There are very few people who can get away with going by a single name. There are even fewer who will remind you to make a dentist appointment or will play your favorite song on command.
Siri, Alexa and Cortana are the activation names of the digital assistants by Apple, Amazon and Windows, respectively. Collectively, we repeat these names all day long. "Siri, add toilet paper to my shopping list." "Alexa, order toilet paper." (Yes, I have accepted that they are basically fancy devices used to acquire TP.) How did they get their names, though? As it turns out, these devices' name stories are just as complicated as a human baby’s.
Siri was originally chosen by Apple because it was short, easy to remember and uncommon. Adam Cheyer, Engineering Director at Apple and one of the founders of the startup that created Siri, also liked it because the domain name was available. Like a proud parent, Adam told Quora that everyone on the Siri team had their own reason for liking the name. He liked the Swahili meaning, “secret,” which was also a reference to the company’s original name, stealth-company.com.
“I also liked the fact that it was the reverse of Iris, a software system I helped build as part of the CALO project which Siri spun out of,” he said. “Some liked the resemblance to SRI, which was the research institute that ran the CALO project.” The startup's CEO, Dag Kittlaus, favored the Norse meaning of the name, "beautiful woman who leads you to victory.” He liked it so much, in fact, that he almost named his daughter Siri. In Sinhalese, the word Siri means “beauty.” Unfortunately, the team didn't realize at the time that it was also close to the Japanese word for “butt,” which is “Shiri,” but that's neither here nor there.
Rumor has it that Steve Jobs wasn't crazy about the name when Apple acquired Siri. No one could come up with a better name, though, so it stuck. Now, Siri is a basic command for many Apple users and we could not imagine her any other way.
Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant software, has its roots in TV and history. On “Star Trek,” the characters often yelled out “Computer!” when they needed assistance. David Limp, vice president in charge of Amazon devices, told attendees of the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference they felt “computer” was too common of a word. So, they went deep into history to the library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, which was known as the “keeper of all knowledge.” They shortened the name a bit, of course, and Alexa was born.
Cortana, the black sheep of the digital assistant family, was named after a character from the game “Halo.” What started out as a codename for the project later became the official title of the software when no one could shake the name. Deborah Harrison from Cortana’s editorial team told Mashable, "We were looking for something that had the correct cadence for recognition, so that when you say the name the system can easily understand it and distinguish it from other words you might be saying."
Google Assistant, on the other hand, has the very clever command word of “Google.” Zero creativity points for that one.
As all-knowing as these devices claim to be, don’t bother asking them where they came from. Cortana says, “My name comes from Curtana, the legendary sword.” Alexa says she’s called Echo because “when you talk to me, I talk back.” Siri, the eternal sage, never gives a straight answer, from an “enigma wrapped in a riddle” to “not at liberty to discuss.” Not helpful, girls. I guess they should stick to toilet paper.