Originally published Mar 16, 2007

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 piperipetypewipe. 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. skillskinskirt), 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.

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