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Facebook just sounds like a social media site, but the word facebook originates from something. I looked online and found nothing relevant to the origin of the word. Would you please shed a light?

Note: The question is about the noun facebook and it is not directly asking the origin of the proper noun Facebook (the company name).

Although, as a side note, it is mentioned that the trademark of the company is in lowercase but it starts with upper case most of the time:

The official trademarked name of the social-networking service and website is spelled “facebook,” all lowercase letters. Formal writing style—as exemplified by most news and book publishers—is to treat such names as regular proper nouns, in this case “Facebook,” using an initial capital letter. dictionary.reference.com

The noun facebook is not easily searchable in Google and Google Books (because of the vast amount of "Facebook" results). Additionally, Google doesn't offer case sensitive search.

It is not in OED also.

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  • @BoltClock: I'd suspected that "facebook" might have been an established term for "directory" at Harvard... looks like that was the case.
    – ExOttoyuhr
    Jun 4, 2015 at 17:01
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    It's all on Wikipedia: "Harvard did not have a student "Facebook" (a directory with photos and basic information) " en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook#History / "A face book or Facebook is a printed or web directory found at American universities consisting of individuals’ photographs and names. In particular, it denotes publications of this type distributed by university administrations at the start of the academic year with the intention of helping students get to know each other."
    – Hugo
    Jun 5, 2015 at 7:16
  • The year 1983 is not mentioned in Wikipedia. It says mid-1980s.
    – ermanen
    Jun 5, 2015 at 18:15
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    Google Books is supposed to offer case-insensitive search in Ngrams, but it fails dismally for this word.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 10, 2015 at 5:07

5 Answers 5

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Etymonline:

directory listing names and headshots, by 1983, originally among U.S. college students, from face (n.) + book (n.). The social networking Web site of that name (with capital F-) dates from 2004.

It is hard to trace back the noun "facebook" in Google Books (because of "Facebook") but I could trace back to 1988. Here is an excerpt from the book Letting Go: A Parents Guide to Today's College Experience from 1988:

We were supposed to send in a picture to be in the freshman facebook. I didn't want to have my face in the facebook.

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    At my school, the facebook was often dubbed the "Pig Book" (officially, it was the New Student Register) presumably because it was used to poke fun at freshmen in their uncool high school garb and coiffure, yet it was also used by the fraternities when sending invitations for their frosh teas— and I'm guessing the chance of getting an invitation depended a bit less on the major and hometown and a bit more on the picture.
    – choster
    Jun 4, 2015 at 17:19
  • Have you tried NGrams from before 2005?
    – Mitch
    Jun 9, 2015 at 17:13
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    @Mitch: Yes, I tried. I could find the citation from 1988. I can update if you can find earlier examples. It might have been more prevalent in spoken language.
    – ermanen
    Jun 10, 2015 at 15:18
  • The question seems like it would have been answered multiple times already as part of Facebook company lore, like asked of Zuckerberg in 2008 where he came up with it. The research is probably not so much dictionary search as it is Harvard or Exeter history.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10, 2015 at 16:36
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@ermanen's etymology is correct, and Harvard definitely had a physical printed book that listed students' names and addresses, but Zuckerberg most likely got the name of his social media site from the printed directory produced by his high school, Phillips Exeter Academy.

"The Facebook" from Exeter

Check out this article, where a former Exeter classmate of Zuckerberg says,

"The front cover says "The Photo Address Book," but we all called it "The Facebook" all the time because "The Photo Address Book" was such a mouthful. Everybody called it that."

Also note that the first version of Zuckerberg's site was called "The Facebook".

And here's a fun clip from the movie The Social Network where you hear Harvard students referring to it as "the facebook".

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I chanced upon, I think, the earliest mentioned word of Facebook on youtube - Newhart, episode 115 titled "Here's To You Mrs. Loudon," at 1:11 minute, aired September 14, 1987

George Utley: The Beavers are putting out a facebook.
Dick Loudon: facebook??
George Utley: You know, a book of pictures of our faces with our names under them. All the Beavers except me have nicknames ...

YouTube video

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The earliest occurrence I've found of the term "face book" to mean a student directory with pictures dates to 1968. An article in the Newark Star-Ledger describes a book with pictures and profiles of 1,500 students at eight women's colleges, put together by editors at Princeton University's student newspaper. The book, according to its editor, Peter G. Brown, was designed to take the "blind" out of blind date.

That might not qualify as the earliest use of "face book," but the article quotes a first year Smith College student as saying every student in her dorm submitted a picture "because the fellows at Princeton have promised to do our student handbook."

True, said Brown [the article continues], the pictures will do double duty. Princeton will publish what he called Smith's 'face book'."

-- "Princeton Opens the Eyes of Its Blind Daters," Newark Star-Ledger, December 6, 1968, p1.

Northwestern University had a "face book" as early as the 1970s. It's mentioned in several articles in the student newspaper. The earliest one I've found is from 1973.

ASG representative Bill Roegel is currently working on the registry, or 'face book' as it is commonly called, which would contain names, photographs, and hometowns, and possibly campus addresses, hobbies, and majors of incoming freshmen.

-- "ASG Rep Plans Freshman Registry for Class of '77," Daily Northwestern, January 30, 1973, p2.

Princeton's own directory of first year students, the Freshman Herald, was referred to informally as "the face book" as early as 1974. A whimsical "Official Princeton Dictionary" in the Daily Princetonian a year later defined "face book" as "n. The Freshman Herald, indispensable reference tool, with the photo of everyone in the class. Makes good reading on a Saturday might." (July 25, 1975, p15.)

I'll bet there are other examples from colleges earlier than 1968.

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When I went to college in the sixties both my school, Rhode Island School of Design and neighboring Brown University had mug books or face books wher you could search for your classmates by name or face.

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