The Etymology of “Y2K”

Y2K was born on Monday, June 12, 1995, at 11:31 p.m. It was delivered in the middle of an otherwise unintelligible e-mail, a contribution to an Internet discussion group of computer geeks exploring the millennium bug long before most people were surfing the World Wide Web.

The efficiency of the term is undeniable–“Y” for “year,” the number “2,” and “K” for “thousand” (from the Greek “kilo”)–and it eventually caught on. But its creator remained unidentified until just over a year ago, when someone performed the equivalent of a computer paternity test by searching the discussion group’s archives for the term’s first use.

The father of the phrase is a 52-year-old Massachusetts programmer named David Eddy, who’s now the president of a Y2K consulting business (click here to visit his Web page). “People were calling it Year 2000, CDC [Century Date Change], Faddle [Faulty Date Logic],” Eddy says. “There were other contenders. [Y2K] just came off my fingertips.”

But what made Y2K flourish while its siblings withered? Chatterbox put in a call to S.B. Master, who runs a naming company called Master-McNeil (great name!). Master, who has helped name products for clients including Sun Microsystems and 3Com, performed her own “linguistic analysis” of Y2K and promptly listed six reasons why the term holds such appeal.

For starters, she said, Y2K is efficient, since it uses just three characters; similarly structured acronyms such as IBM, NBC, and GTE are a staple these days. Second, it’s gratifyingly symmetrical, with the two consonants hugging that number in the middle. Third, the whole tradition of combining letters and numbers is a venerated techie convention (think R2D2 and C3P0). The date-glitch issue has obvious technical associations; thus there is a strong connection between the term’s appearance and its meaning.

But none of that explains why we’re not using, say, Y2M–which simply replaces the consonant representing the Greek term for thousand with the one for “mille,” its Latin counterpart. Y2K, Master pointed out, is rhythmically superior. When Y2K is analyzed as poetry, one sees a satisfying alternation of long and short syllables: a diphthong (Y), followed by a monothong (2), and a final, concluding diphthong (K). By contrast, Y2M ends with a redundant monothong. Master praised Y2K for its superior sound production, noting that the term features an elegant plosive progression, moving from soft (Y) to hard (2) to hardest (K). Y2M retreats lamely with a soft “M.”

Finally, Master lauded the term for the way its articulation produces a satisfying movement to the inside of the mouth. The term begins with a labial sound: the “Y” being formed with the lips. The “2” is aleveolar; it is produced at the middle of the mouth when the tongue touches the roof. Finally, the “K” is velar, forming in the back of the mouth. That progression sets Y2K far apart from its competition. In fact, Master said, she could think of only one other word that featured such an exquisitely pleasing articulatory progression in the mouth: “Monica.”