How the 'i' got into Apple, and government by crony

Have you ever wondered when people started putting a lowercase `i' in front of words and what it stood for? In that case, read on

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 9

"Buffalo Bill's defunct ...," wrote E.E. Cummings (usually written e.e. cummings) in 1920, "Jesus/he was a handsome man/and what i want to know is/how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death."

The poet Edward Estlin Cummings dropped the hyphen in blue-eyed and put no question mark after his question about the mortality of heroes. On top of those deliberate grammatical outrages, he went so far as to lowercase what has become known as the perpendicular pronoun: he wrote "I" as i.

Cummings lives. For people who prefer listening to talking, the iPod is the most-talked-about new device on earth. This column focuses not on the hot-selling MP3 gizmo that converts 1s and 0s to music and chatter but asks, When was the lowercase "i" before an uppercase anything born, and what did it stand for?

Officials at Apple Computer were unhelpful, presumably because they suspected that etymological revelation would cause their stock to plunge again, but Dan Frakes of Macworld magazine informs me that the first i-product was the iMac in 1998: "Apple said at the time that the i in iMac stood for `Internet,' as the iMac was allegedly the easiest computer to connect to the Internet." Why not Imac or I-Mac? "They didn't want to dilute their brand name by lowercasing it (e.g., Imac)." And IMAX Corp, all caps, is a theater network founded in 1967.

The iMac led to the iBook, a laptop, in 1999, followed by Apple's iPhoto, iTunes and a bundle sold as iLife. The meaning of i went beyond "Internet" to be taken as "individual," "integrated," "interactive" or -- most appealing to consumers -- "what I want when I want it." Because it is difficult to copyright a letter of the alphabet, other companies jumped in: a furniture manufacturer calls its massage chair an iJoy "to emphasize the `individual' interaction with the chair."

Why wasn't iPod, which originally played only music, named iMusic? "Apple planned from the very beginning," says the Times tech columnist, David Pogue, "to expand its mission to text, photos, files and, as of this month, videos." The word pod was chosen, I deduce, to describe an all-purpose media module, its meaning "a container or protective housing," long associated with peas and pregnancy but in recent decades applied to the streamlined fuel compartments under the wings of aircraft.

The marketing fad will last until another letter gets hot. Keep your i on u.

GOVERNMENT BY CRONY?

"I've been struck by the use of the word crony," writes Dixie Blake from e-mailand, "to describe Harriet Miers' relationship with the president. I have always thought of the word crony to relate only to men, mano a mano guy stuff. A crony is someone you play practical jokes on, go on fishing trips with in traditional good ol' boy fashion. It doesn't seem to fit Harriet Miers. However, the word groupie comes to mind." Perhaps considering that synonym a bit harsh, she added, "Another term that would suit Harriet Miers better than crony is confidant."

Crony quickly became an attack word on US President George W. Bush's choice of Miss Miers as nominee for the Supreme Court from both ends of the political spectrum. (Excuse me, but I just wanted to show how the formerly standard "Miss" to identify an unmarried woman now shocks many readers.) My correspondent's perception of crony as a longtime male buddy is accurate, but as women rise in government, it is evidently becoming a unisex insult. Confidant is indeed its more admiring synonym, though when applied to a woman, that word is spelled confidante, with its pronunciation given a French twist.

"After coming under withering criticism for cronyism," wrote the liberal Matthew Rothschild in The Progressive, "Bush turns around and appoints a crony to the Supreme Court." Despite disdain of the choice of Miers expressed by several prominent columnists on the right, the multimedia commentator Rush Limbaugh backed up the Bush nominee by attacking her detractors, headlining his Web site "Media Parrots Democrat `Crony' Talking Point." (Limbaugh construes "media" as singular.)

Recalling former president Lyndon Johnson's failed attempt to appoint his close friend Abe Fortas to be chief justice, James Rosen of The Sacramento Bee wrote that the Miers nomination "reignited an age-old US debate about cronyism in the White House." Because the old word now in play has a nice political resonance, let's look at its history. Samuel Pepys in his 1665 diary recorded a meeting with "my old school-fellow ... who was a great chrony of mine." An early lexicographer called the word "vox academica" -- college slang -- and the OED finds no connection to crone, "a withered old woman." Because the meaning of crony is "a friend of long standing," and the early spelling was chrony, my guess is that it may have been influenced by that Greek word for "time," root of "chronology."

Not speculation, however, is the etymology of the political attack phrase government by crony. On Feb. 9, 1946, the columnist Arthur Krock wrote in The Times: "During the Truman administration, New Dealers and Conservatives found themselves together in opposition to what a press-gallery wit has called a `government by crony."' He used that phrase in his headline. Soon afterward, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, an FDR holdover, resigned with a well-publicized blast at Truman: "I am against government by crony."

Before stepping into Krock's shoes as conservative Washington columnist at The Times, I wrote him in 1967 in my capacity as political lexicographer to see if he would reveal his anonymous source. "As I recall," my neighbor-to-be replied, "I was referring modestly to myself in that reference to `a press-gallery wit,' though I couldn't document that I am the originator. But I, too, have seen no previous use of the expression in the public prints."