I had a debate with a friend on how things made artificially are named. My friend proposed that all man made things are named with a reason/proper meaning. I disagreed saying not all things made by man need to have a name which can have a history or meaning to it. I gave an example of the word "quark" as a proof. Are there words for man made things which one can prove has no reason to it and was "made-up" arbitrarily.

  • You mean Spring was named spring because it is springy or makes a noise like "sprinnng" and so is named for a reason ? You could try googling for site:etymonline.com unknown origin
    – mplungjan
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 8:06
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    Aaah, look how muddy and smelly they are. Rightly are they called pigs!
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 9:15
  • What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...
    – iterums
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:13

3 Answers 3


I've named your question Thornton. I can demonstrate that there's no reasoning behind the choice and that it was chosen arbitrarily, because I'm the one who named it so. Therefore, your question Thornton is a counterexample, and we can see that yes, things can be named arbitrarily.

(This answer is named Beedlydee.)

  • +1 on both the Thornton Question and the Beedlydee Answer. But as far as I can tell, these names were chosen perfectly and properly according to what they are: the Thornton Question and the Beedlydee Answer. As far as I can tell, there are no other questions or answers that deserve such titles, as I cannot even imagine any other as being equally Thornton-like or Beedlydee-like. Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 8:19

I appologize for copy-pasting, but would you seriously rather have me paraphrase it than savor the original flavor?


The earliest surviving linguistic debate is found in the pages of Plato (c. 427-347 BC). Cratylus is a dialogue about the origins of language and the nature of meaning – first between Socrates and Hermogenes, then between Socrates and Cratylus. Hermogenes holds the view that language originated as a product of convention, so that the relationship between words and things is arbitrary: 'for nothing has its name by nature, but only by usage and custom'. Cratylus holds the opposite position, that language came into being naturally, and therefore an intrinsic relationship exists between words and things: 'there is a correctness of name existing by nature for everything: a name is not simply that which a number of people jointly agree to call a thing.' The debate is continued at length, but no firm conclusion is reached.

The latter position is more fully presented, with divine origin being invoked in support: 'a power greater than that of man assigned the first names to things, so that they must of necessity be in a correct state.' By contrast, Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his essay De interpretatione ('On interpretation') supported the former viewpoint. He saw the reality of a name to lie in its formal properties or shape, its relationship to the real world being secondary and indirect: 'no name exists by nature, but only by becoming a symbol.'

These first ideas developed into two schools of philosophical thought, which have since been labelled conventionalist and naturalistic. Modern linguists have pointed out that, in their extreme forms, neither view is valid. However, various modified and intermediate positions were also argued at the time, much of the debate inspiring a profound interest in the Greek language.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal, 1995, pg. 404.


Your friend is incorrect. Examples abound which are either very tenuously connected (Google, Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo) or entirely abstract (Quark, Bing).

Perhaps pharmaceuticals are even better examples, starting with Viagra.

Edited to add

Of course I'm aware of the original meanings and likely intentions behind 'Amazon' and 'Yahoo'; the point is that as the connection between the name and the thing being named grows weaker and weaker it effectively disappears, and then we say the name is arbitrary. The comment explaining eBay seems a clear example.

  • Quark is a good counter-example. There is a rationale behind the name Google.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 21:41
  • Wikipedia: Amazon.com – founder Jeff Bezos renamed the company Amazon (from the earlier name of Cadabra.com) after the world's most voluminous river, the Amazon. He saw the potential for a larger volume of sales in an online (as opposed to a bricks and mortar) bookstore. (Alternative: Amazon was chosen to cash in on the popularity of Yahoo, which listed entries alphabetically.)
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 22:11
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    Wikipedia: eBay – Pierre Omidyar, who had created the Auction Web trading website, had formed a web consulting concern called Echo Bay Technology Group. "Echo Bay" did not refer to the town in Nevada, "It just sounded cool", Omidyar reportedly said. Echo Bay Mines Limited, a gold mining company, had already taken EchoBay.com, so Omidyar registered what (at the time) he thought was the second best name: eBay.com.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 22:12
  • Wikipedia: Yahoo! – The word Yahoo was invented by Jonathan Swift and used in his book Gulliver's Travels. It represents a person who is repulsive in appearance and barely human. Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang jokingly considered themselves yahoos. It's also an interjection sometimes associated with United States Southerners' and Westerners' expression of joy, as alluded to in Yahoo.com commercials that end with someone singing the word "yahoo".
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 22:12
  • Far from eBay being a "clear example" of an arbitrary name, it's a clear example of a verifiable etymology and not arbitrary at all. Even Bing is not arbitrary: it's onomatopoeic; it's a signal sound.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 11:44

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