Let's Talk About the Ether

A discussion of language usage and style for Ethereum, and a case to refer to the broader ecosystem more commonly as “the Ether” in mainstream contexts

Special thanks to Nixo, the Daily Gwei community, and others for discussion and review.

Technologies like Ethereum often experience waves of growth and public adoption that require us to update our language toolbox. As the protocol continues to evolve and more parts become abstracted away in the eyes of a typical user, we should make more use of the phrase “the Ether” as a simple way of referring to the network inclusive of its complex ecosystem.

Over the last few years, Ethereum has evolved from the single main chain to an ecosystem of many chains that settle back to the main chain. These additional connected chain layers are often referred to as Layer 2 chains or L2s and are well-tracked on websites like L2beat and Grow the Pie. The L2s are intended to scale the speed and volume of transactions for users of the network many times more than what the main chain, referred to as the Layer 1 or L1, alone can do. (A more specific technical definition: “Trust-minimized L2s are chains that can be exited by interacting directly with L1 alone, eliminating the need to rely on L2 operators for the security of the funds.”) They often use the same ether currency as the main chain and get the security and decentralization benefits that the Ethereum L1 has. This modular design addresses the blockchain trilemma so that people interacting with Ethereum get an ecosystem that is scalable, secure, and decentralized.

The result is that we have a growing and robust bazaar of an ecosystem, but many people in broader society don’t quite grasp what it is or that it even exists in this way. Currently it's a very niche group of crypto people that understand how it works at some level. The stated goals from those building on Ethereum are to become a backbone for widespread digital asset activity. If that becomes the case people will use and benefit from the network without really thinking about it because they’ll be interacting with a secure yet easy UX that abstracts away all the complexity of how the network works. There are already examples of this playing out.

To support this future we need better language norms for mainstream communication about interacting onchain in Ethereum. Currently we have the name “Ethereum” for the network and “ether” for the currency. We should give more prominence to the concept of “the Ether” as not just the currency name (lowercase “ether”) but as a name for the broader Ethereum ecosystem itself encompassing the main chain and its many connected layer 2 chains. It would almost be interchangeable with the concept of “the Ethereum ecosystem” in the same way that “the Internet” is a stand-in for all the various technologies and protocols we use when connected to the online ecosystem.

The general concept of an “ether” already enjoys public recognition as detailed extensively in the Oxford English Dictionary that society has had for centuries. The luminiferous aether, albeit scientifically disproven, was actually part of how the Ethereum protocol was named. Since the reasoning for naming the project can help inform the way we think of it today and into the future, I looked for the earliest discussion of the “Ethereum” name’s origins and found the forum post Vitalik Buterin made in March 2014, where he wrote:

I was browsing a list of elements from science fiction on Wikipedia when I came across the name. I immediately realized that I liked it better than all of the other alternatives that I had seen; I suppose it was the fact that [it] sounded nice and it had the word "ether", referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel.

Although I did play wow back in the day, any reference to those level 70 baddies in Netherstorm is purely incidental.

Screenshot of the original post. The forum is no longer live and only available in web archives.

With the reference to the Ethereum from World of Warcraft as incidental (i.e. accompanying but not a major part), we can take that at face value. It was not the primary driving choice for the name, but it came about from the initial element and played a supporting role in the ultimate name. The incidental nature means the name “Ethereum” is not the primary part of the name, but rather “ether” is.

Another reason to go more generic is because that allows the word “Ethereum” to be more narrowly used for the technical protocol itself. We want the ecosystem to be and feel like an open and public good similar to how the broader internet is, as indeed both generally are. Using a more generic and understood term will support that need as if it was always there and always will be for all to interact with. Distancing from a name that sounds even potentially branded or proprietary will help mainstream understanding.

There may be some legitimate concern about confusion that arises from having the same word mean different things based on whether it is capitalized or not. Currently Ethereum / ether do not have this quality, but Bitcoin / bitcoin does (lowercase “bitcoin” indicates the currency unit, while uppercase “Bitcoin” indicates the network itself). There are good discussions about the confusions and benefits of having a single word mean different things based on whether it’s capitalized, thus making it a capitonym. The option to have different meanings depending on the capitalization serves as a feature rather than a bug that would benefit Ethereum in the consciousness of mainstream society.

In 2023 there's been a good effort to use the word “onchain” as a new sort of “online” for anything done with a blockchain. Using a preposition plus “the Ether” is similar to that. Here are some examples of how this could be used as a more specific kind of “onchain”: 

“Transact across the Ether.”

“The contract executes on the Ether.”

“The Ether is decentralized and secure.”

“Hold assets in the Ether.” [Note: this could mean ether or any ERC-20 token tied to an Ethereum address.]

“This game happens in the Ether.”

“Here’s the latest news from the Ether”.

“Buy things via the Ether”.

“Get paid through the Ether”.

For technical discussions about the Ethereum protocol and its Execution Layer, Consensus Layer, general development, and validator activities it would still make sense to use the Ethereum name. This gives the Ethereum name a more clear and specific purpose.

I’m certainly not the first to suggest using “the Ether” in this more prominent kind of way. There have been books (“Out of the Ether” by Matthew Leising), podcasts (“Into the Ether” from Anthony Sassano and Eric Conner), and marketing campaigns from financial firms like VanEck that use the name in the exact way I’m suggesting we do more of. And of course there’s Vitalik’s original explanation already noted.

The new idea I bring is that referring to the broader Ethereum L1 + L2 value and smart contracting ecosystem as not just “The Ethereum Ecosystem” but more simply “the Ether”, in the same way that we now refer to the combination of all the Internet Protocols like HTTP, SMTP, TCP, browsers, broadband, WiFi, fiber cables, data centers, and all the apps and interconnected software as “the Internet”. The public’s future ability to broadly understand and reference everything the community is building depends on how we talk about it through choices like these.


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