It just occurred to me that the term tooltip used for SE's upvote and downvote button might be ambiguous and misleading.

Doesn't tip here mean advice? Whenever I hover my mouse over an icon in Word (computer programme) a message appears that tells me more about that button's functionality, and its purpose. But on SE the message that appears over the upvote and downvote button is almost a definition.

  • “This question shows research effort: it is useful and clear”
  • “This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful”

Merriam-Webster defines the noun of vote as

vote (n)
1. a : a usually formal expression of opinion or will in response to a proposed decision; especially : one given as an indication of approval or disapproval of a proposal, motion, or candidate for office
b : the total number of such expressions of opinion made known at a single time (as at an election)
c : an expression of opinion or preference that resembles a vote

and provides the following explanation for the intransitive verb

vote (v)
1: to express one's views in response to a poll; especially : to exercise a political franchise
2: to express an opinion “consumers…vote with their dollars” — Lucia Mouat

Surprisingly, the terms upvote or tooltip, are not listed in M-W, but Oxford Dictionaries Online comes to the rescue.

(In an online context) register approval of or agreement with (a post or poster) by means of a particular icon:

I wish people would upvote comments they agree with instead of typing the exact same thing a hundred more times
you’ve missed the point entirely, as have the people who upvoted you
users don’t have the ability to upvote, downvote, or leave comments

A message which appears when a cursor is positioned over an icon, image, hyperlink, or other element in a graphical user interface.
You can float the mouse over the button and a tool tip will pop up with the command name.

  1. Why is the UV and DV button on StackExchange, technically speaking, a ‘tool’?
  2. Is clicking on Facebook's like button a ‘tool’ or a ‘vote’? Would you define awarding marks/grades on a paper a ‘tool’?
  3. Bonus question: When was the term tooltip/tool tip actually coined, and by whom?
  • 2
    You're either overthinking this or you've had an attack of literal mindedness. Your cited definition of tooltip says "element in a graphical user interface." So the UpV DnV buttons don't have to be tools, just such elements.
    – deadrat
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:28
  • @deadrat probably both! But I thought ‘what the heck‘, let's post the question anyway for the database. Someone might find it interesting or useful in the future.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:30
  • 1
    I can trace the usage back to InfoWorld, 10/4/93.
    – deadrat
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:37
  • I don't think “This question shows research effort: it is useful and clear” is an almost definition. It is two (or three) of the tips with which you can decide whether to upvote a question (or an answer) or not. It is just a guide (tip) for users who are not familiar with the button. When you are familiar with the buttons, you no longer read them.
    – user140086
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:53
  • On the etymology: Tooltip: tool +‎ tip , originally used with toolbars to provide a tip or hint as to what function each graphical icon represented. The term was introduced as ToolTip by Microsoft in the 1990s. en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/tooltip - 1991 according to Ngram: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user66974
    Mar 6, 2016 at 9:10

3 Answers 3


Regarding the etymology, according to Wiktionary the term is from the 90's:

  • tool +‎ tip, originally used with toolbars to provide a tip or hint as to what function each graphical icon represented. The term was introduced as ToolTip by Microsoft in the 1990s.

The earlest usage I could find is from january 1st 1993:

  • Excel displays a ToolTip that provides the name of the button, as shown in Figure 3.1. • To learn what a button does, move the mouse pointer over the button and look at the status bar (bottom of the screen). If the button is available for the task ...(10 Minute Guide to Excel 5)

Of course it is accurate.

  • It is a tip for the tool
  • and the tool could be a link or a button
  • and the tip could be a temporary pop up, a static permanent text or any means of providing a tip for the tool.
  • And most importantly, programmers are god. We can define anything we want and call it anything we want, for you muggles and mugglets to accept.

As an engineer I could argue that all uses of tooltip in the context of user interfaces are completely inappropriate. A tooltip is the physical tip (cutting element) of a tool. This can be seen by googling tooltip CNC (where CNC is short for computerised numerical control.)

As was pointed out by Josh61 the user interface term was capitalised as ToolTip when first introduced, though it has now gained such wide acceptance that it has lost the capitalisation (and now if I try to google for the engineering meaning all I get are user interface definitions.)

The fact is, language is there to suit the needs of the users, not the other way around. New words (and new meanings for old ones) are coined continuously. Before 1980, "texting" would have been considered an ugly neologism, for example. "Programmers are God" as BlessedGeek puts it.

If you still think a tip should be advice, consider the SE text to be an ellipsis:

[click here if] This question shows research effort: it is useful and clear”

  • It might be inappropriate-- I more or less agree with your semantic argument-- but there are alternative terms that are precise you could use instead such as hover text, mouseover text, alt tag, etc. But if it's understandable and in context, tooltip is fine. Even sort of makes sense in a program like Photoshop, where there are actually tools.
    – stevesliva
    Mar 7, 2016 at 4:40

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