Word Routes

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"And One More Thing": The Insanely Great Language of Steve Jobs

After the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on Wednesday, the outpouring of sympathy on Twitter was overwhelming, with an estimated 10,000 tweets per second. Several of the top "trending topics" over the following day were Jobs-related, marked by the hashtags #ThankYouSteve, #iSad, #ThinkDifferent, and #StayHungry. Even in death, Jobs's unique and spirited way with words was palpable.

From the early days of Apple, descriptions of Jobs invariably mentioned his gift of gab. Bud Tribble, an Apple software developer, came up with the term "reality distortion field" to describe Jobs's power of persuasion, his ability to convince those around him of just about anything. Later that term was applied to his famous Stevenotes, the keynote addresses he gave at developers' conferences. He clearly had a magic touch with language and understood that his sleek words were crucial selling points for Apple's equally sleek products. Looking back at Jobs's key words and phrases, we find that some were his own creations while others came from his Apple colleagues, but all seem to bear the Jobsian imprint.

Apple: It was Jobs who came up with the simple yet striking name of the company, founded as "Apple Computers" in 1976 with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. Wozniak tells the story behind the name in Owen Linzmayer's Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World's Most Colorful Company:

Steve was still half involved with a group of friends who ran the commune-type All-One Farm in Oregon. And he would go up and work there for a few months before returning to the Bay Area. He had just come back from one of his trips and we were driving along and he said 'I've got a great name: Apple Computer.' Maybe he worked in apple trees. I didn't even ask. Maybe it had some other meaning to him. Maybe the idea just occurred based upon Apple Records. He had been a musical person, like many technical people are. It might have sounded good partly because of that connotation. I thought instantly, 'We're going to have a lot of copyright problems.' But we didn't. Both of us tried to think of technical-sounding mixtures of words, like Executek and Matrix Electronics, but after 10 minutes of trying, we both realized we weren't going to beat Apple Computer.

Whether we owe the name to the apple orchards of Oregon or Jobs's love of the Beatles, or some combination of the two, we can say in retrospect that it certainly beats bland alternatives like Executek or Matrix Electronics. And when the famous Apple logo was developed, featuring a bite taken out of one side, it offered a visual pun on the word byte.

Macintosh: The personal computer that really put Apple on the map in 1984 had a name that was inspired by "Apple" but wasn't Jobs's choice. Jef Raskin, the Apple employee who first started the project, picked "Macintosh" because the McIntosh was his "favorite kind of eatin' apple." The "Mc-" spelling was ruled out because that name was already in use by a manufacturer of audio equipment. It's just as well, because "Macintosh" could be easily shortened to "Mac," which was then used as combining form for such products as MacWrite, MacPaint, and the MacBook. According to Evan Morris in his book on brand names From Altoids to Zima, Jobs wanted to call the new computer the Apple Bicycle, and continued to call it "a bicycle for the mind" in presenting it. I'm sure Jobs was glad he was persuaded to go with "Macintosh" instead.

Insanely great: When Jobs unveiled the Macintosh at the 1984 launch event, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. His tagline for the original Mac, "insanely great," is pure Jobs. He had a way of using over-the-top superlatives that sounded like they were motivated by pure excitement, not mere hucksterism. In future "Stevenotes," he would introduce new products with such terms as magic, revolutionary, incredible, breakthrough, and unbelievable, or even with sound effects like boom! (In an homage to Jobs, the Lion operating system released by Apple this year had several of these "Steve-isms" hidden in an "easter egg.") His gift of showmanship came through when, in his Stevenotes, he would seem to be wrapping up his presentation, and then say "And one more thing..." before revealing something "insanely great" that he was holding in reserve.

Think different: Jobs was forced out of Apple in a boardroom coup in 1985, but came back to the company as interim chief executive in 1997. Apple was in sad shape at the time, and the first order of business was an advertising campaign to bring back the spark of the old days. Jobs asked their ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, to come up with a campaign to remind the world of Apple's core principles. In an interview with the Cult of Mac website, the agency's creative director, Ken Segall, described how the slogan came to be:

The TBWA\Chiat\Day team quickly came to the conclusion that Apple isn't like other companies. It doesn't follow the rules. It thinks different. The slogan, Think Different, was dreamed up by an art director, Craig Tanimoto, Segall says. "We had a lot of ideas in that area; it was one of those things up on the wall. Everyone says, 'Huh, that's pretty good.' Like a lot of things, we were not really sold on it straight away, but it grew on everyone."

The ad campaign was hugely successful, even if the use of the adjective different instead of the adverb differently rankled the grammatically inclined. (See Nancy Friedman's column "The Thinkers" for more.)

The i- prefix: On the heels of the Think Different campaign, Jobs had to follow through with products that would match this vision of "different-ness." The computer that would save Apple was a sleek all-in-one desktop model. After the design was complete, Jobs asked TBWA to name it, and Segall was the one who came up with the eventual winner. Again from his Cult of Mac interview:

Jobs said the new computer was a Mac, so the name had to reference the Macintosh brand. The name had to make it clear the machine was designed for the internet. It also had to be applicable to several other upcoming products. And it had to be quick: the packaging needed to be ready in a week.
Segall says he came back with five names. Four were ringers, sacrificial lambs for the name he loved — iMac. "It referenced the Mac, and the "i" meant internet," Segall says. "But it also meant individual, imaginative and all the other things it came to stand for." The "i" prefix could also be applied to whatever other internet products Apple was working on.

Jobs wasn't immediately sold on the name iMac, but he clearly came around to it in time for the 1998 launch. He explained the i- prefix as primarily standing for internet, but also reeled off several other i-words that he saw as intimately connected to the new computer: individual, instruct, inform, inspire. And of course it also evoked the personal pronoun I. That prefix would become the most recognizable linguistic signature of the Apple world, with the introduction of the iPod, iTunes, iBook, iPhone, and iPad. (It's such a powerful marketing tool that when a new multi-touch iPod was announced with the name Touch, many consumers gave it the misnomer iTouch.)

An authorized biography of Jobs, which is now being rushed into publication, was originally going to be called iSteve: The Book of Jobs. Ultimately, the title was changed to the more straightforward Steve Jobs. One reason for the change may have been that an unauthorized biography was previously released with the clever title iCon, which can be read either as icon (given Jobs's iconic status) or I con (given criticisms of his "conning" people with that charismatic "reality distortion field").

App Store: With the introduction of the App Store in 2008, Apple pioneered the "ecosystem" for easy-to-download apps for mobile devices, copied by competitors like Microsoft and Google. I devoted a Word Routes column ("How We Got an 'App' For That") and a New York Times piece ("The Great Language Land Grab") to the fights that Apple has had with its rivals over the use of the term "app store." In this case, Jobs was perhaps done in by his own words, since he himself referred generically to the "app stores" of other companies. Still, regardless of the trademark squabbles, the connection between "app (store)" and Apple is a strong one, thanks to the company's slogan for the iPhone, "There's an app for that." Some might even think that app is short for Apple rather than for application.

Stay hungry: Since Jobs's death, millions of people have watched the YouTube video of his powerful commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, at a time when he had already been diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him. At the end of the speech, Jobs quoted the farewell message that appeared in the final issue of the seminal counter-cultural publication The Whole Earth Catalog in 1974: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." He told the Stanford graduates, "I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you." It's a fitting farewell for Jobs, too, as he always hungered for new ideas and new words to express them, without fear of being called foolish in the process.

[Fans of "Steve-isms" will want to check out today's New York Times crossword, along with write-ups by Times crossword blogger Deb Amlen and the constructor of the puzzle, Kevin Der.]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 7th 2011, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Excellent article, and an articulate tribute to one of the more powerful leadership dimensions of Steve - his use of language to convey meaning and purpose of everything Apple created. One can only presume he used this same skill to effectively convey to his teams at Apple what he wanted his products and services to be and feel like to customers.

I also like the background on how so many Appleisms were not actually Steve's creations, but rather commissioned by Steve, or merely eventually accepted by Steve. It gives us a deeper look at not just his creative skills, but his decision skills as well.
Friday October 7th 2011, 12:06 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I have always loved my apple products. I always enjoyed seeing Steve Jobs address an audience. I just never quite knew why. Now I know. He was far more than a likable, persuasive smart guy. He was a genius. It is with great pleasure that I use his products. I have deep gratitude that he made products that eased me (a novice and a senior citizen), painlessly into technology. There is nothing to equal the joy that iTunes has brought into my life. So it is with deep sadness and regret that I say goodbye to the giant innovator of our era. My prayers are with his wife and children.
Friday October 7th 2011, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Why is the Apple logo indented at the top and bottom? Why do some people draw apples and pumpkins this way? Unless they're cut in half from top to bottom, you don't see the indentation from the side.
Saturday October 8th 2011, 2:21 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A precious comment indeed.
Compiled all information in one shot.
I enjoyed this piece of writing as I was following every single news from Yahoo news. In case any S-lovers/i-lovers missed any information regarding Jobs premature death that recently published online, this article contained all. Of course, I'll save the article for future reference.
I've an i-phone. So in other words, I know Mr. Jobs' "app."
My final curiosity is: to know details about his funeral. He talked about death, but which religions group was he belong?
The ultimate reality for any human being is: we have to leave this world sooner or later. No one can scape from this final verdict.
Sunday October 9th 2011, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Fristious (Indonesia)
Jobs is a 20th century's great inventor!
Monday October 10th 2011, 12:54 AM
Comment by: Don A. (Spokane, WA)
@ begum F As I understand it, Jobs was most influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism teaches acceptance, and especially the acceptance of one's own death.
Monday October 10th 2011, 11:09 AM
Comment by: Darpan S.
Very nice & informative article about Steve Jobs. I see him as a gr8 visionary. A gr8 creator who recognized & accepted creativity in others too. True iCon who Thought Differently not afraid to be foolish. Long Lives The Legend. RIP.
Sunday January 6th 2013, 3:59 PM
Comment by: AJ the awesome
Stay hungry, stay foolish!

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Apple pioneered the "app store," and now everyone wants in on the act.
The Thinkers
- 7 Comments
"Think different" comes from a long line of "thinking" ad slogans.
The Namer's Bookshelf
- 1 Comment
"From Altoids to Zima" and other recommended books on brand names.