November 14, 2006

i-pod (rhymes with "key pod")

A very satisfactory episode of House tonight! It involved a man who was waken up from a ten-year coma (for a single day, but that's another story). How do you convey that he has not seen anything of the world for a long time? You have him pick up an ipod and say "What's this? It says i-pod", pronouncing the "i" to rhyme with "key".

Which brings up the question: Where does the affix-like i come from, anyway? What does it signify? What's up with putting a lowercase letter in front of a word?

William Safire addressed these questions about a year ago (Oct. 30, 2005) in his column "On Language":

When was the lowercase i before an uppercase anything born, and what did it stand for?

Officials at Apple Computer were unhelpful, presumably because they suspected that etymological revelation would cause their stock to plunge again, but Dan Frakes of Macworld magazine informs me that the first i-product was the iMac in 1998: ''Apple said at the time that the i in iMac stood for 'Internet,' as the iMac was allegedly the easiest computer to connect to the Internet.'' Why not Imac or I-Mac? ''They didn't want to dilute their brand name by lowercasing it (e.g., Imac).'' And IMAX Corporation, all caps, is a theater network founded in 1967.

It may be the case that i is for Internet, but the first association one has is that of the first person singular pronoun. A product made for me! My iPod! Also, I think that the lowercase i is supposed to signal irreverence. Not for nothing does Safire start his column with a reference to E.E. Cummings (yes, one can capitalize the name).

The iMac led to the iBook, a laptop, in 1999, followed by Apple's iPhoto, iTunes and a bundle sold as iLife. The meaning of i went beyond ''Internet'' to be taken as ''individual,'' ''integrated,'' ''interactive'' or -- most appealing to consumers -- ''what I want when I want it.'' Because it is difficult to copyright a letter of the alphabet, other companies jumped in: a furniture manufacturer calls its massage chair an iJoy ''to emphasize the 'individual' interaction with the chair.''

Why wasn't iPod, which originally played only music, named iMusic? ''Apple planned from the very beginning,'' says the Times tech columnist, David Pogue, ''to expand its mission to text, photos, files and, as of this month, videos.'' The word pod was chosen, I deduce, to describe an all-purpose media module, its meaning ''a container or protective housing,'' long associated with peas and pregnancy but in recent decades applied to the streamlined fuel compartments under the wings of aircraft.

The marketing fad will last until another letter gets hot. Keep your i on u.

The trend is still going strong: iChair, iBag, iStick, iLight, iFloor, iDoor - it seems that anything goes. And yes, the iJoy robotic massage chair is still around.

And this all on the day Microsoft released its "iPod killer", the Zune. (Rhymes with Clooney?)

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