Siri’s Rise From Obscure Nordic Nickname to Branding Success Story

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 15 2011 3:18 PM

Siri Baby

As Apple’s use of an obscure Nordic nickname shows, we’ve started naming our kids like products—and our products like kids.

Siri on the iPhone 4S.
Siri on the iPhone 4S

Photograph by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

User: What does Siri mean?

Siri: What does my name mean? I don't think I can explain it in your language.

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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.