Vitalik Buterin picked the name Ethereum after browsing Wikipedia articles about elements and science fiction, when he found the name, noting, "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 sounded nice and it had the word 'ether', referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel."[9]
Ethereum's smart contracts are based on different computer languages, which developers use to program their own functionalities. Smart contracts are high-level programming abstractions that are compiled down to EVM bytecode and deployed to the Ethereum blockchain for execution. They can be written in Solidity (a language library with similarities to C and JavaScript), Serpent (similar to Python, but deprecated), LLL (a low-level Lisp-like language), and Mutan (Go-based, but deprecated). There is also a research-oriented language under development called Vyper (a strongly-typed Python-derived decidable language).
Most cryptocurrencies are designed to gradually decrease production of that currency, placing a cap on the total amount of that currency that will ever be in circulation.[25] Compared with ordinary currencies held by financial institutions or kept as cash on hand, cryptocurrencies can be more difficult for seizure by law enforcement.[1] This difficulty is derived from leveraging cryptographic technologies.

The term altcoin has various similar definitions. Stephanie Yang of The Wall Street Journal defined altcoins as "alternative digital currencies,"[20] while Paul Vigna, also of The Wall Street Journal, described altcoins as alternative versions of bitcoin.[21] Aaron Hankins of the MarketWatch refers to any cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin as altcoins.[22]
On 3 January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block.[25][26] Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the text "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks".[16] This note references a headline published by The Times and has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.[27]:18