i - how can one letter mean so much?
- 26 October 2010
- From the section Magazine
The Independent has launched its new light edition, branded "i". So what is it about the letter that has made it so popular?
It started over a decade ago with Apple's iMac and caught the imagination of a generation through the iPod, spawning a whole family of products.
Since then, all manner of products have taken the "i", including the iDog and iTeddy, as manufacturers sought to tap into the buzzword.
By 2008, the BBC's iPlayer had adopted the same snappy title form - even its developmental name of Integrated Media Player was shortened to iMP - and last year "i" was chosen by Magazine readers as one of 20 words which defined the last decade.
Now the Independent's publisher has chosen the letter as the title of its new edition, aimed at a younger crowd who want quality journalism but lack the time to digest a daily broadsheet.
Its promotional blurb gives a few clues as to the reasoning behind the choice, peppered as it is with words like intelligent, incisive, interesting, influential and ideas.
Branding expert Jonathan Gabay says the newspaper's marketers are also capitalising on the modern trend towards personalisation of products.
"It's about the power of people. Them saying 'I want this; I want that. You're going to give me what I want on my terms'," says the head of marketing company Brand Forensics.
"Because people are looking for answers quickly, the paper is very visual. People can get to what they want as quickly as possible."
Today's use of the letter "i" is much more sophisticated than early attempts to jump on the "cool" bandwagon, says Mr Gabay.
It reflects the participatory nature of advertising, encouraging people to share knowledge of their products electronically or "like" them on Facebook, he says.
"Brands are doing everything to say 'you're in charge'. It gives products more credibility," he adds.
This growing importance of the virtual world is the reason why "i", along with "blog" and "tweet" made it into Magazine readers' 20 words that defined the Noughties, according to lexicographer and Countdown regular Susie Dent, who was one of the judges.
Language expert Tony Thorne says single-letter prefixes have been "trendy" since the 1990s, first with e-mail, then e-commerce and other brands such as Npower or M People.
But "i" works best because its meaning has become "completely ambiguous", he says.
Whereas with iMac it stood primarily for "internet", the iPod - and many products since - have left customers guessing as to whether it might be internet, information, individual or interactive, argues Mr Thorne.
"Even when Apple originated the iPod, it seems it didn't have one precise denotation. iPod had already been patented as the name of an information kiosk," he says.
From the newspaper's point of view, it fits in with the idea of it being a light edition, says Mr Thorne, former head of the Language Centre at King's College London.
"It's taken on a life of its own, with these overtones now of easy portability or usability - senses which don't usually relate to the letter 'i'."
"People accept prefixes in a different way now. We used to have to use them according to their true meaning but now it's more symbolic."
However, Mr Thorne has a warning for the i's publishers - that there are few successful precedents for single-letter titles.
"People may find it irritating as it's too short to roll around the tongue and too oblique or obscure in its reference," he adds.