User: What does Siri mean?
Siri: What does my name mean? I don’t think I can explain it in your language.
* * *
In Scandinavia, the name Siri—a pet form of Sigrid—is familiar as both a nickname and a given name, and common among babies and grown women alike. Think of it as a Nordic equivalent, in usage and familiarity, of our Annie.
In the English-speaking world, though, Siri has been virtually unheard of. That changed, of course, this fall, when we all came know it as the name of the talkative artificial intelligence system built into the latest version of the Apple iPhone. The name selection was a departure for Apple, a company that in recent years has leaned toward functional product names like iPhone and MacBook, having abandoned cute names like Newton around the time it ditched its cheerful rainbow logo.
In that selection lies the story of why I consider Siri, a human name bestowed on a nonhuman entity, the most significant name of 2011. For the past six years, I have been crowning an annual Name of the Year on my website, BabyNameWizard.com, each December. The name of the year isn’t necessarily the most popular name of the year. (Those leaders, like Jacob and Isabella, tend to be traditional, familiar, and slow-changing.) Instead, I look for a one-word time capsule, a name that will later tell a larger story about what was going on in the culture that year. Past name selections have run the gamut from real (Barack) to fictional (Renesmee) to symbolic (Joe, as in Joe Six-pack and Joe the Plumber), to self-invented (The Situation.)
This year, in Siri, we have the rise of the virtual name. Even before the October debut of the new Siri-enabled iPhone, it was shaping up to be a strangely tech-dominated year for names, a year of machines with human names, and humans whose names were trapped in virtual limbo. In 2011 IBM’s new artificial intelligence computer system and Jeopardy champion had a person-styled name (IN: Watson; OUT: Deep Blue) even as some real people were insisting on the right to use non-name handles in virtual social networks. Meanwhile other humans were struggling to liberate their names from the tyranny of the computers. Facebook suspended the account of the novelist Salman Rushdie for calling himself by his middle name, Salman—as he has done all his life—and kicked an Indiana attorney off the site for the sin of having the same name as Facebook’s founder.
The problem for Mark Zuckerberg of Indiana was that his name had become part of someone else’s brand. I’ve written elsewhere that today’s parents approach baby naming a lot like product branding. Whereas in the past, names were typically chosen with an eye toward personal significance (a baby was named after a grandparent, say), today’s parents increasingly focus on the public image projected by the name. Now, as companies introduce technologies that function like people—Siri being the most extreme example to date—they suddenly find themselves with the same kinds of naming challenges as today’s parents-to-be. They have to consider the complex web of cultural meanings that each name carries. They have to ask, as parents do, “What kind of person are we creating, and what name represents that?” It’s no coincidence, then, that brand names and baby names have begun to converge, as in the case of the Sienna minivan and baby Siennas. Both corporate parents and real parents are trying to launch their offspring with the best possible positioning.
The idea of a talking machine with a human-sounding name isn’t new, of course, but Siri’s predecessors were mostly fictional. Think of the arch KITT, the silicon brain of a Pontiac Trans Am in the TV series Knight Rider; Joshua, the troubled NORAD computer in the film War Games; and most famously, the eerily calm HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey. These were mere characters, but they also reflected a universal human impulse: When we talk to something, or when it talks to us, we want to call it by a name. Have you noticed how many drivers give names to their GPS devices?
Using a human-style name reflects our relationship with the thing being named, and shapes it, too. Indoor pets, for instance, tend to be given more human names than outdoor animals. Assigning a name to a car or other possession is both a sign of growing affection and a spur to further bonding. Around my house, I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to throw out any object that my kids have named. Names give objects emotional life. You say, “the iPhone” and “my iPhone,” but not “the Siri.” It—she—is simply Siri. The name makes the act of conversing with a metal slab feel natural. And that emotional connection seems to invite a powerful kind of consumer loyalty.
So let’s circle back and take a closer look at the choice of the name Siri. It has been widely assumed that the name is a riff on SRI International, the California R&D lab where the technology was first developed. According to the people behind Siri, though, that’s not the real story. From the beginning, they say, there was no question that they wanted a human-style name. In fact, the project’s original code name was, irresistibly, HAL. And Siri’s founding team of executives and investors approached the naming process by turning to baby-name books.
The winning name was proposed by the project’s director, Danish telecom executive Dag Kittlaus. Siri—remember, it’s a popular name in Scandinavia—was the girl’s name Kittlaus and his wife had picked out for their first child. They ended up having a boy, so the name was kept in reserve until the proud papa finally got the chance to confer it on a virtual daughter. The letters S-R-I might have been a plus, but Kittlaus and his team were playing to an audience of investors and consumers, not to the research lab. What mattered was the public image of the name.
To fully appreciate how good a pick Siri was, compare it to a legendary fiasco of a human-named software product, Microsoft Bob. Bob, introduced in 1995, was an interface that attempted to make the intimidating world of computing a little friendlier. “He” presented your computer as a house, with perky cartoon characters to help you find your way. His logo was written BOB, with a bespectacled smiley face for an “O.” But Bob’s friendly, old-fashioned, ultra-simple name symbolized the product’s basic conceptual flaw. The aggressively disarming everyman pose was like Microsoft patting you on the head: Bob was, in a word, patronizing.
The name Siri, by contrast, hit its mark dead center. To English speakers, it comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn’t overly familiar or tied to any time period. It’s approachable but not in your face. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and that you, as its owner, are stylishly confident. It encapsulates the movement of technology from geek to chic that was a defining contribution of Steve Jobs’ last decade at Apple.
Put another way, it’s a branding coup, one that instantly achieves the effortless Nordic cool of an Absolut Vodka bottle. But can vodka-bottle style and human-name style really point in the same cultural direction? you ask. Sure. Just ask the 78 American girls born last year who were named Skyy.