The etymology of Zotero

If you’ve read yesterday’s post (Zotero, an Endnote alternative) or come across Zotero elsewhere, you may have been wondering about its name. I believe most Anglophones pronounce the word [ˌzɔˈtɛɹoʊ] (zoh-TER-o), but the term itself actually derives from the Albanian verb zotëro-j [zɔtərɔj] ‘master, acquire’.1 The final -j marks the 1st person indicative (the regular citation form for Albanian verbs); in the imperative, we would get the bare verb root zotëro [zɔtərɔ]. Such subtleties did not figure in the initial baptismal act though, as we learn from the following transcript of a podcast featuring the people behind Zotero:

The web being what it is, I just quickly googled and found an English-Albanian dictionary and typed a bunch of our keywords that we associated with the project and when I typed in ‘learning’, uhm… one of the variants was ‘to learn something extremely well, that is to master or acquire a skill in learning’ was “zotëroj” [pronounced [ˌzɒˈtuəɹʏdʲ] by DC, MD] (laughs), which we have shortened, we took of the -j at the end which is more of a ‘y’-sound and uh we took off the umlaut …
(Dan Cohen, Library Geeks Podcast 5, 22:48—25:15)

It’s that simple. And for good reason: essentially, want you need in branding is a name that sticks but at the same time is not too common; if it makes some sense (as ‘Zotero’ does), that’s even better. The main reason for choosing an Albanian word was thus quite simply to minimize namespace competition. It could have been any other language — in the podcast, Cohen mentions Maori; Hawaiian is another popular one (wikiwiki), and Bantu languages do well too (cf. Ubuntu, a trendy Linux distribution).

Will It Brand?2

Well, not really any other language of course — a quick glance over the newest web 2.0 names shows that the preferred languages for this kind of stuff seem to be those with simple phonotactics, a preference for open syllables, a basic 5 vowel system, and not-too-outlandish consonant inventories. So at least in the Zotero case, Siwu is out of luck with suã ‘learn’ (nasal vowel penalty); as is Tamashek with əlmæd ‘learn, acquire’ (muddy vowels and a voiced coda, tsk); as is Ibibio with kpéép ‘learn, acquire’ (a labio-velar stop, for petes sake!); readers are no doubt able to come up with better examples.

Fortunately, these need not be fatal problems. Dan Cohen’s account shows that if it doesn’t fit, we can always make it fit; just chop off needless morphology and diacritics and you’re good to go. Now Albanian, hitherto an obscure 6 million speaker language making up it’s own branch of Indo-European, enjoys celebrity status as the language that endowed the Next-Generation Research Tool with a worthy name. Come to think of it, who would not like to sacrifice some orthographic blunt for publicity’s sake? Suddenly all those woefully inadequate orthographies we linguists have been cursing at are beginning to make sense!3 Next time the underspecified orthography drives you nuts again, find a product in need of a name and monetize your despair. I’ve heard naming consultants easily make twice as much as linguists.

P.S. A great resource on naming is Nancy Friedman’s Away With Words, which I found via the posting on Web 2.0 names referenced above.


  1. See this article in the GMU Gazette. []
  2. For those not aware of the covert reference here, check out the hilarious Will It Blend? viral marketing campaign. []
  3. Did you know that Maa (Eastern Nilotic, East Africa) has nine contrastive vowels but is usually written using Swahili’s five vowel orthography? Did you know Siwu (Kwa, Ghana) and Nafaanra (Senufo, Ghana) have three distinctive tones, none of which are marked orthographically? []

6 thoughts on “The etymology of Zotero”

  1. Khmer has 33 written vowel symbols, many of which have 2 sounds, depending which class of consonant they are paired up with!

    See here for the squiggles!

  2. When pronouncing the name of the product, is the accent on the first, second, or third syllables?

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