Naming a programming language is kind of like naming your kid — it’s a personal decision that lots of people will have opinions about, no matter what you decide.
When you’re choosing a programming language to learn, it’s easy to be intimidated or just plain confused by the names. But often a programming language’s name doesn’t have anything to do with its functionality or ease of use. Sometimes, it’s just a name that programmers chose on a whim (looking at you, Java).
That said, knowing some of the fun facts about the history of programming languages can come in handy next time you’re making small talk with another developer or attending a trivia night. Here are the stories of how popular programming languages got named.
Back in 1991, Java creator James Gosling just looked out his office window for inspiration: Why not name it Oak, after an oak tree? Turns out, there were too many potential copyright issues with Oak, so the company Sun Microsystems held a brainstorming session for a new name.
“The goal was a name that sounded revolutionary, lively, dynamic and was easy to spell and remember,” Georges Saab, the vice president of development for Java, told The New York Times. Some of the frontrunners included: Silk, DNA, Lyric, Pepper, NetProsse, Neon, Ruby, WebRunner Language, WebDancer, and WebSpinner. The name Java was derived from Java coffee, hence the coffee cup logo. Plus, the name fit because “programmers drink a lot of java,” Jim Waldo, a Harvard computer scientist who worked at Sun Microsystems, told The Times.
A python snake might be scary, but Python the programming language is not.
The name “was a bit of unwitting marketing genius on my part,” Guido Van Rossum, the Dutch programmer who invented Python in 1991, wrote in a 2016 blog. “I meant to honor the irreverent comedic genius of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and back in 1990 I didn't think I had much to lose.”
Python is a very approachable language, and a popular choice for beginners. “For someone who is not yet a programmer, who wants to become a programmer, for those people Python is particularly easy to get,” Van Rossumsaid in a 2019 interview for Dropbox.
Ruby creator Yukihiro Matsumoto, aka “Matz,” was inspired by the programming language Perl, and wanted to name his language after another gem. But words like “diamond” or “sapphire” were too long to remember and type, so he settled on Ruby or Coral.
“I talked to my friends and Ruby is shorter, and the ruby jewel is more beautiful, so I picked the name Ruby,” Matsumoto, who invented Ruby in 1995, said on an episode of the podcast The Changelog. By coincidence, pearl is the birthstone for the month of June, while ruby is July, so it made sense that Perl’s successor would be named Ruby, he said.
C and C++
C was born out of Bell Labs in the 1970s, and is the brainchild of a computer scientist named Dennis Richie. The name is not exactly creative: C was the followup to a programming language called B.
Then, in 1983, another programmer at Bell Labs named Bjarne Stroustrup came up with C with Classes, which was later renamed C++. Sure, they could’ve named this new language D, but the “++” is a nod to an operator for incrementing a variable in C. So, C++ really means “increment C by 1.”
No, it’s not “C hashtag” or “C pound,” Microsoft’s programming language C# is pronounced “C sharp,” like the musical notation that indicates a higher pitch. According Anders Hejlsberg, who created C# in 2000, C# was almost named COOL, for C-style Object Oriented Language, but that name wasn’t ideal for trademark reasons.
“We wanted to have a reference to the language’s C heritage in the name and finally settled on C#,” Hejlsberg said in a 2009 interview. “Some other candidates I recall were e-C, Safe C, C-square, C-cube, C-prime, C-star, and Cesium… Looking at those now I’m pretty happy with our choice.”
In the 70s, the data science language SQL was originally called “Square,” and then was changed to Structured English Query Language. “In 1977, because of a trademark issue, the name Sequel was shortened to SQL,” Don Chamberlain, SQL co-creator, wrote in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. But despite the acronym, SQL is typically pronounced “sequel.”
Feeling inspired to learn one of these languages? Take our sorting quiz to figure out which language fits your personality, learning style, and goals. Or you can opt for one of these languages, which experts say you should learn first. And if you’re not sure where to start, you can also check out our Code Foundations Skill Path if you’re not sure where to start.