Dot Com

While conducting research for I got to thinking about the domain name and the term dot com. The etymology isn’t very mysterious, but exactly when did the term and its various meanings arise.

The term dot com is used in the pronunciation of internet domain names and it is also used to refer to internet-based companies. But who decided that commercial internet addresses should end in .com and when did people start referring to companies as dot coms? And going further back, why and when did people start referring the "." mark as "dot"?

The use of .com as an internet domain name dates back to 1984, a decade before most people became aware of the internet. It was first proposed in October that year in RFC 920 (Request For Comments #920) of the Network Working Group. The title of the document was simply Domain Requirements and in it the authors, J. Postel and J. Reynolds, set up the basic top-level domains that we know today, .gov, .mil, .edu, .org, and .com. In it they define the com domain as:

"COM = Commercial, any commercial related domains meeting the second level requirements."

The use of "dot com" to refer to the top level domain of an internet address dates to at least 1990. The following appeared in a Usenet post in alt.callahans from 15 February of that year:

"Fuzzface whips out his handy DNS map of the Internet and starts flipping through the index. ‘Hmm <pause> COM <pause> MOT DOT COM.’"

Another early use is from a rec.humor.d posting from 3 July 1991:

"Yes, it is a full stop at the end of a sentence, but for computer filenames, I’ll call it a login dot com. I think my dad does, too, but then again, neither of us are computer illiterate, and he is originally from India."

The use of the word "dot" to represent the "." mark is, of course, much older. There is a single known use of the word dot in Old English, dating to around 1000, meaning the head of a boil. The word then disappears from English for over 500 years, reemerging in the 16th century with the meaning of a small lump. The sense meaning a speck or spot of color dates to 1674, and the sense meaning the mark made by a pen is from 1748. And famously, Morse telegraphy in the 19th century used "dot" to mean the shorter of the two Morse signals, the counterpart of the "dash."

The use of "dot com" to mean a company, especially an internet company, obviously comes after the domain naming convention. The earliest reference I have found is another Usenet post, this one from 1 July 1994, in which the author refers to her (or his?) company, Dow Chemical, as a "dotcom:"

"Cary K Black (Who’s opinions are his/her own and not those of his/her dotcom!)"

The use of the term to refer to an internet company in particular is from two years later and is recorded in the OED from the magazine Internet World:

"A broad discussion of what’s around the corner for dot.coms. What effect will ‘dumb-delivery’ devices have as they make the Web more accessible to the home market?"

Other variations of the term include dot-commer, an employee of a dot com company and dot bomb, a failed dot com company.

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