The name Skype combines the familiar and the peculiar. Though there’s that unmistakable word sky in there, the end of the name is a bit of a mystery. On the Skype forum, an employee reveals that the name was derived from the expression sky peer-to-peer, which was shortened to Skyper and then to Skype. So this is a kind of a blend, but a rather unusual one.

What makes Skype unusual? First, while sky peer-to-peer is an extremely descriptive name for a peer-to-peer telephony service that works worldwide, the -pe portion of Skype is almost impossible to associate with peer-to-peer unless you’re told to. So Skype is really more like a tweak of the word sky. When looked at that way, the name is still unusual because the addition of a single consonant to the end of a word (The Name Inspector is talking about the pronunciation here, not the spelling) is a very uncommon naming strategy. No tweaked word names on the TechCrunch index list or the alternative search engine list are derived that way.

For that reason, some people might interpret Skype as a more conventional blend of sky with something that rhymes with Skype, like hype–or pipe, ripe, type, wipe. etc. Of these, pipe is the most positive association that’s at all relevant. But why the word sky? Well, aside from the general positive associations (sunshine, heaven, height=excellence/goodness, etc.), it seems to be a metonymic reference to communication signals as they exist in the popular imagination–flying around in the air. Since this is internet telephony we’re talking about, however, it seems just as likely that the signals would be flying around in cables of various kinds.

Another notable thing about Skype is its historical origin. Like many common English words that begin with sk- (e.g. skill, skin, skirt), sky has its roots in Old Norse. Maybe that’s one reason the Scandinavian founders chose this word for their company name. This distinctly Germanic provenance actually makes Skype stand out a little in the crowd of tech names, which tend, like scientific terms, to be derived at least partly from Latin or Greek. It gives Skype a basic and old quality, which is enhanced by the fact that the name is a single strong syllable.

The simplicity of the name Skype is its greatest asset. It makes the technology seem like a basic necessity that no one should do without, like a desk, a plate, a sink, or some other everyday item with a one-syllable name. It’s almost as if someone discovered a short and useful but long-forgotten English word and reclaimed it. That’s really quite a naming achievement.

[tags]skype, the name skype, skyper, sky peer-to-peer, sky, telephony, internet telephony, VoIP, etymology, Germanic, Old Norse[/tags]

11 Responses to “Skype”

  1. on 16 Mar 2007 at 4:12 pm Nancy

    Fascinating analysis, as always! When I first learned about Skype’s business model I assumed the name was a blend of “sky” and “kype”–but that’s because when I was in grade school “kype” was slang for “mooch” or “filch.” In other words, I thought Skype was giving people a way to steal something out of the air. And in a sense that’s exactly what it’s doing.

  2. on 21 Mar 2007 at 3:55 pm Brian Laks

    I always thought it had to do with the “hype” they were inevitably generating. “Sky” is also a very common first word for compound names (skylight, skynet,skywalker).

    It doesn’t work as well as the second part of the compound, because that could give in unintended pronunciation of “ski”. As in, lets go grab a brewsky.

    If you make it two words though, it seems acceptable. I might actually be interested in a beer called Brew Sky.

  3. on 30 May 2007 at 3:01 pm Gradiva Couzin

    Would a big sky crystal ale be close enough?

    Name Inspector: Thank you for the fascinating blog! I found your website through the Feedburner publisher’s buzz and am enjoying reading through old posts. Having just formed (and named) a company last summer, I wish I’d known about your services sooner!

    -Gradiva Couzin
    Gravity Search Marketing

  4. on 19 Jul 2007 at 7:11 pm just.xTc

    My French friends pronounce it sky-pee because they don’t know any better. It’s really starting to annoy me. :p

  5. on 29 Jul 2010 at 1:29 pm Johan

    I’ve always been told it was named so as it should work like a verb, to skype, to make the use of the word spread mouth to mouth.
    Another Scandinavian

  6. on 18 Dec 2010 at 9:36 am Esteban

    Wow!! I had the doubt of the origin of Skype’s name for a while, now I know!!

    Being a non-native Enslish speaker, I had little options to think about Skype’s origin. Then, add the fact that in Mexico is better known for the IM service than the telephony service, I always thought it had something to do with “Type” as a verb.

    Anyways, great blog and great post.

  7. on 19 Dec 2010 at 3:39 am Peter

    Very intersting article. You can even learn English through skype.

  8. on 12 Dec 2011 at 3:42 pm Luca

    Hi to all, interesting article, and interesting comments above. I come a bit late with mine, I see, but nevermind, someone might come across this page in the coming weeks just like I did.

    Interestingly enough, I do know that it’s Skype, which rhymes with hype, and type, and blah blah.. but I do pronounce it Sky-Pee myself! Why? many reasons.. first of all, of course, because I’m Italian, and I don’t follow English rules for words that are not English, unless I have to.
    Second, because my mental associations went a bit further: Skype (in my Sky-pee world..) is a service that does calls over IP, meaning something which does linger in the Sky, but that eventually ends up being delivered over I P, therefore Sk-I-P.
    Third, now that I have read about the original names (here and in other pages…. my girlfriend’s American, I have to document myself before I get into another argument about our beloved Voice Service…) I know that the service is a Peer-to-Peer, meaning that when it used to be “Sky Peer to Peer” the long version was already “Sky-Pee” and then the redundant “-r-to-peer”.. why not shortening it into Sky-pee?

    The bit I know about brand names, having come across and having had to manage some myself, tells me that it’s not unlikely that a company names and profiles its brand based on the broadest (and with most chances of success) version of its variables. Once the Skype brand was established and mostly used in its Sk-hype form, why would the company even bother changing it?

    Now, not that I know this is true, as a matter of fact, I don’t, nor I expect it be a better explanation than those hinting at a Hype or a Kype or any other non-”peeing” phonetics, but still… I find it enough to let me believe that I’m just as right as anyone else.. I guess I’m gonna have to drop a couple of lines to the founders themselves, if I want to clear my doubts. Not that I would eventually believe them, of course… ;-)

  9. [...] Skype? Its initial name was “Sky-Peer-to-Peer” then “Skyper”. I guess just like Puff Daddy, P.Diddy, Diddy, Puff or Puu they kept shedding their name. Well the names lose gained them 8.5 Billion dollars. Perfect Kodak moment [...]

  10. on 06 Aug 2012 at 10:27 am Matt

    Point of interest:

    the first snapshot makes clear reference to the name ‘skyper’

    Proof! x

  11. on 29 Aug 2012 at 4:32 am Mike

    I watched a programme about VoIP where the founder explained that the Sky-peer-to-peer morphed into Sky-pee pronunciation because it reflects ‘IP’ as in VoIP.

    Voice over IP… Sky-pee

    This was the founder’s explanation but I can’t find evidence of it anywhere! And I don’t know what the programme was. Makes good sense to me, but everyone thinks I’m weird for saying Skype like Sky-pee…

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