[SIGCIS-Members] So, about these "unicorns"...

Andrew Meade McGee amm5ae at virginia.edu
Tue Apr 7 22:31:28 PDT 2015

Dear Tom,

It's an interesting observation, and I hope you are able to more
definitively trace it. I too had noticed an uptick in the usage this
spring. Ben Zimmer did a short article on the phrase in the *Wall Street
Journal* on March 20th ("How ‘Unicorns’ Became Silicon Valley Companies")
but there are no conclusions or potential origins beyond what you already

You're right to note the shift in meaning -- unicorns in this context are
not mythological, but something exceedingly uncommon. No implication that
actually locating a unicorn is futile, akin to Sir Pellinore's quest.

For what it's worth, I noticed a tendency to employ that particular word in
2014 media accounts of female engineers and tech executives describing
their encounters with sexism in a male-dominated Silicon Valley.
Interestingly enough, I distinctly recall women engineers describing their
statuses in startups as "unicorns." The term seems to be floating around
the IT industry in a few different contexts.


-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Andrew Meade McGee
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
PO Box 400180 - Nau Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904

On Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 12:23 AM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:
> Dear SIGCIS,
> To raise a question that may or may not turn out to have an explanation
within our domain of expertise, I’ve been struck recently by frequent
references to “unicorns” in the business press. This crystalized over
breakfast last week when I noticed an article “Stockholm: The Unicorn
Factory” in my usually reserved Financial Times.
> Apparently the consensus definition of a “unicorn” in this context is a
newish company worth more than $1 billion. Stockholm has more per capita
than anywhere but Silicon Valley. A total output of five sounds more like
an atelier than a factory, and unicorns probably come from unicorn farms
rather than assembly lines, but that’s not really the point.
> The point is: unicorns are not just vanishingly rare. They’re mythical.
Until recently, if someone told me I was pursuing a unicorn I’d have
assumed they meant I was wasting my time. So where does the metaphor come
from? Something that’s very rare but very valuable might be worth pursuing.
Something that is flat-out imaginary seems a bad goal for investment
dollars or public policy.
> Is this something to do with the popularity of fantasy literature in the
tech field? Did it start as some kind of joke and get out of hand? A quick
Google search suggests that it was popularized with
http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/02/welcome-to-the-unicorn-club/, which offers
no particular justification for the term beyond “to us, it means something
extremely rare, and magical.”
> Tom
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