Twitter was almost named Twitch. The mobile-payment company Square was originally called Squirrel.
On the origins of the Twitter name (punctuation and capitalization sic from the interview transcript):
DORSEY: We wanted a name that evoked what we did. We wanted something that was tangible. And we looked at what we were doing and when you received a tweet over SMS, your phone would buzz. It would jitter. It would twitch. And those were the early names, Jitter and Twitch. And neither one of them really inspired the best sort of imagery.
COLGAN: They were the names of the company?
DORSEY: They were the names we were considering for Twitter at the time.
COLGAN: So we could all be talking about Jitter.
DORSEY: Exactly. One of the guys who was helping us build and create the system, Noah Glass, took the word Twitch, and he went down the dictionary. And we all looked at the Oxford English dictionary at the T-W’s, and we found the word Twitter. And Twitter means a short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds. And we were like, that describes exactly what we’re doing here. So it was an easy choice, and we got twitter.com for some very low price, and we named the company Twitter.
(Actually, they named it Twttr. They bought the vowel-enhanced domain later.)
On having second thoughts:
DORSEY: When we came up with the name Twitter, we were like, maybe this isn’t the best name for us because in certain cultures it could be demeaning. For example, Twit is not necessarily associated with the best things. But it has been amazing in terms of building the brand because the users have taken it and invented their own vernacular around it, like tweet and twitterpated.
CHOW: I haven’t heard of twitterpated. What does that mean?
DORSEY: Twitterpated is when you’re overwhelmed with information or you’re just so excited that you forget to tweet or forget to share.
(Chow must never have seen Bambi. I refer you to “Bambi Learns About Twitterpated.”)
On the origins of the Square name:
COLGAN: Do you think it’s possible to change the name as you go along?
DORSEY: Yes and that’s what we found with Square. So naming Square was a different experiment. It had some similar themes. Square is a little tiny cube that plugs into your phone or ipad or ipod, and it allows anyone to accept a credit card immediately from wherever they are. So again, we wanted something that evoked a physical tangible thing.
We were actually discussing the idea without a name in the middle of the woods up in Marin County around San Francisco. It was nighttime, and there were all these squirrels moving back and forth, and I saw a squirrel and I was like, "Squirrel! They go around and collect acorns. They squirrel things away. And that’s perfect because people are going around, and they’re accepting payments, and they’re squirreling away money. Let’s name it Squirrel, and the device can be an acorn, and you can swipe a credit card through the acorn and plug it into your mobile phone. It’s perfect." And we were calling the company Squirrel and all the code was named Squirrel.
Two months later, we were demoing it at a company, and I was in their cafeteria and I was checking out for my lunch, and I saw this little squirrel logo, and it was at their point of sale system. And I said to my colleague, “What’s that?” And he worked at this company and said, “Oh that’s our point of sale. It’s called Squirrel Systems.” And I was like, well we’ve got to change that name.
So we went to the whiteboard. We went through every single name we could imagine for a payments company, and we came up with a bunch of them. We went to Seashell, which was the first currency ever used, but our lawyer was worried that Shell oil company would sue us so that was a no. Then we went to Flow and a bunch of other things that evoked that sensation.
And then I just remembered what we did at Twitter with the dictionary. So I looked up the word Squirrel and I went down the S-Q’s and I came across Square. And I looked at the definition, and of course it’s geometry but also there’s a phrase “square up,” which means to settle. [SquareUp.com became the company’s URL.] There’s “fair and square,” which means that we’ve settled up. And then there’s “we’re square,” which means we’re good. We’ve paid our dues.
CHOW: Or you’re so square.
DORSEY: Well we ignored that part.
CHOW: Just like you ignored the twit part.
That last point is important. If you look hard enough—or even if you look just a little—you’ll find something negative about every name. So ask yourself: Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Can you—and your customers—ignore the negatives? And can you turn the positives into a viable brand?
(Hat tip: Grammarsnipe.)