When Google announced this week that it was creating a parent company called Alphabet, tech and business observers were left scratching their heads. Why would such a distinctive brand subsume itself under a rubric as generic-sounding as “Alphabet”?

Google chief executive Larry Page shared the news by explaining, “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!” Beyond that, the name has a hidden meaning for potential investors. “We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for,” Mr. Page added.

By betting on “Alphabet,” Google is relying on a word that we all learn as children but has only existed in English for about five centuries. In Old English, if you wanted to refer to the alphabet, you would use a word formed from the first four letters: “a-be-ce-de.” In Middle English this was shortened to “a-be-ce,” or as we would now spell it, “ABC.”

Around 1500, when classical scholarship was all the rage, English borrowed the Latin “alphabetum,” which in turn came from the Greek “alphabetos,” derived from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, “alpha” and “beta.”

Those names can trace their lineage back to the ancient Phoenician writing system. The “alpha” equivalent was shaped like a cow’s head, named after the Phoenician word for “ox.” Similarly, “beta” meant “house” and was shaped like one. In the alphabetic system, those characters came to stand for the initial sounds of the pictured words.

As “alphabet” shed its Greek classical sound in English, “alpha” and “beta” developed their own particular meanings as “primary” and “secondary” in order of importance. Astronomers, for instance, use the letter names for the brightest and second-brightest stars in a constellation.

In the late 1930s, zoologists began talking of “alpha” and “beta” animals, referring to the first- and second-ranked individuals in a community, typically males. The words have been applied more wryly to professional hierarchies, such as Silicon Valley types getting categorized as “alpha” or “beta” geeks.

The most common use of the letters in tech circles is in software and automation testing. Initial in-house “alpha testing” of a product is followed by more public “beta testing” of a “beta version.” Google, notoriously, likes to keep many of its products in “perpetual beta,” continually tinkering with them.

Mr. Page’s allusion to Google’s “alpha-bet” illustrates a new business-minded trajectory for the letter names among quantitative financial analysts, or “quants.” As Journal reporter Scott Patterson wrote in his 2010 book “The Quants,” “alpha” signifies a return on investment that outperforms a benchmark index, while “beta” is “shorthand for plain-vanilla market returns anyone with half a brain can achieve.”

Achieving “alpha,” Mr. Patterson explains, carries the “ephemeral promise of vast riches.” Google has, of course, reaped more-than-ephemeral riches for its investors so far, and the alpha geeks are betting that their latest “alpha-bet” will continue to pay off.

Originally posted: ‘Alphabet,’ From Ancient Greece to Google