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‘Alphabet,’ From Ancient Greece to Google

When Google GOOG 0.10 % announced this week that it was creating a parent company called Alphabet, tech and business observers were left scratching their heads. Why would such a distinctive brand subsume itself under a rubric as generic-sounding as “Alphabet”?

Google chief executive Larry Page shared the news by explaining, “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!” Beyond that, the name has a hidden meaning for potential investors. “We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for,” Mr. Page added.

By betting on “Alphabet,” Google is relying on a word that we all learn as children but has only existed in English for about five centuries. In Old English, if you wanted to refer to the alphabet, you would use a word formed from the first four letters: “a-be-ce-de.” In Middle English this was shortened to “a-be-ce,” or as we would now spell it, “ABC.”

Around 1500, when...