Q&A: The origin of “Zoom”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're zooming in…

Q: Sorry I’m late, I had a Zoom meeting.

A: Was it actually on Zoom?

Q: Um, well no, it was on Google I think. But everyone just says “Zoom” these days, right?

A: You’re right. Although dictionaries haven’t quite made the idea of “Zooming” its own verb just yet (like googling), there is no denying its swift rise to dominance since the beginning of 2020.

Q: What did we say before Zoom?

A: To “Skype” someone was probably the most common – maybe “Facetime” if you were on an iPhone. Zoom appears to have swooped in at exactly the right time – to quickly become the word synonymous with video conferencing.

Q: Yeah, a good thing for them!

A: It’s not always good. Historically, brands have lost trademark protection when they became too “genericised” – such as Aspirin, Trampoline and even Escalator.

Q: Wow! 

A: Other brands spend a lot of money to cling onto their trademarks, yet are still talked about in a generic way – like Band Aid, ChapStick, Velcro and Bubble Wrap.

Q: Fascinating!

A: And of course, for Zoom you also have the negative side – such as the term “zoom fatigue” as the pandemic wore on and people tired of constant video conferencing. So even if someone is sick of their Google meeting, Zoom wears it!

Q: How old is the word “zoom”?

A: Good question. Clearly, it was around before 2020 – with Macquarie Dictionary listing the verb as “to move very quickly” or “to move with sound” among other things. 

Q: So it must only be as new as cars and planes, right?

A: Not quite. While it’s true that there were no high-performance boy-racer horse-and-carts in the 1800s, the sound must have existed. Because “zoom” was first listed as a verb in 1886 – with an “echoic origin”

Q: Echoic origin?

A: Echoic origin.

Q: What does that mean?

A: It’s a word created based on the sound something makes – essentially onomatopoeic. Another similar example was the word “zip” which first appeared in 1852 – long before the zipper or ZIP codes existed. It simply meant “to move rapidly”.

Q: Wait? It didn’t also mean to do up your trousers?

A: No way. That was a 1920s invention, and the verb “to zip” something up didn’t appear until 1932. In fact, the company had “zipper” rejected as a trademark due to it already being in common use by then!

Q: So, back to “zoom”?

A: Yes, so it too was “echoic” – clearly something made that sound in the 19th century (perhaps the sound of wind etc). However, the word didn’t gain real popularity until 1917 – with World War I fighter planes, when it was used to talk about the sound of them quickly moving closer.

Q: Moving closer? Like how a camera will zoom in on something?

A: That’s right, so this “getting closer” idea was picked up by photographers and the “zoom lens” made its debut in 1936 – a lens that could allow you to get a closer picture of your subject.

Q: But the sound had no relevance?

A: For a zoom lens, nope. Of course, a racing car will still zoom around the track and car manufacturer Mazda has used the slogan “Zoom-Zoom” since 2000 all around the world. They say it describes what it calls the “emotion of motion”.

Q: Did Mazda pay you to say that?

A: Mazda did NOT. As a slogan though, it has outlasted most other car maker’s attempts and somewhat entered popular conversation.

Q: But nothing quite like Zoom video meetings!

A: True. And while it might seem like an overnight success, Zoom was actually first launched as a product back in 2012. By January 2020, they already had about 10 million daily meeting participants.

Q: And then…

A: Haha, well yes. Two months later, they had about 300 million. Quite the fast mover. It’s hard to quantify the speed with which it took off.

Q: I can describe it in just one word. Zoom!


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