Microsoft Excel logo on a green background

Millions of people around the world use Microsoft Excel every year to create and manage spreadsheets as part of Microsoft Office. But have you ever stopped to think what “Excel” actually means? We’ll explain its origins.

It’s a Marketing Pun

Merriam-Webster defines the word “excel” as a verb that means “to be superior to; to surpass in accomplishment or achievement.” So when Microsoft decided to pick a name for a product that would suggest excellence in performance and achievement, they hit a home run with “Microsoft Excel,” which enjoys an active user base of over 750 million people today.

An excample of a cell in Microsoft Excel for Windows.
A “cell” is the most basic unit of data in a spreadsheet.

“Excel” very likely has a double meaning. The most basic unit of data in a spreadsheet is called a “cell.” Those are the little boxes you see in a grid pattern when you open up a blank spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. We have not found documentary evidence of this (although there’s plenty of speculation online), but it can’t be a coincidence that “Excel” sounds similar to “cell,” while also meaning “to be superior.” So it’s very likely a marketing pun.

The Origin of the Excel Name

In 1983-1984, Microsoft began developing a new spreadsheet program that would face stiff competition from Lotus 1-2-3, then considered the killer app for the IBM PC. The firm gave the project the code name “Odyssey,” and they decided to target the young Macintosh platform because of its GUI capabilities.

In A History of The Personal Computer (2001), Roy A. Allen described the origin of the Excel name. “During 1984, Microsoft considered a number of different names for the advanced Odyssey spreadsheet project. Then Microsoft selected the name Excel that a branch manager had submitted.”

We don’t know who exactly that branch manager was, but they picked a very memorable name. Microsoft released Excel in September 1985, and it didn’t get a Windows version until 1987 (after Windows had matured somewhat). Lotus 1-2-3 didn’t transition to Windows fast enough, and Excel pulled ahead with more user-friendly features, making it the market giant we know today, although Google Sheets has given it a run for its money.

RELATED: The Beginner's Guide to Google Sheets

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Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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