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Before 'boomtown': For better or worse, Austin's nickname 'Silicon Hills' may be here to stay

Silicon Hills is a former nickname for Austin that soon fell out of favor. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

The Austin tech scene continues to explode— the city is a leader in crypto, Oracle and Tesla are relocating from California, and accelerators like Capital Factory continue to foster growth.

Before transplant Elon Musk dubbed the city a "boomtown," a nickname had already emerged: "Silicon Hills". But the name, a mesh of the Bay Area's "Silicon Valley" moniker and a reference to West Austin's Hill Country landscape—hasn't sat well with some.

Love or hate that Austin has been commonly coined "Silicon Hills," the phrase is likely here to stay. Half of the name, silicon, refers to the base material of semiconductors used in computer circuits, and it's key to Austin's reputation as a tech hub.

According to the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association, 20,820 people in Central Texas are employed by semiconductors, computer and related manufacturers. A new Texas task force is aimed at attracting semiconductor investment into the state. And Samsung has been eying nearby Williamson County for a $17 billion semiconductor factory.

It's also worth looking at how the phrase Silicon Valley started to be used. Like Austin's, it's hard to pinpoint. But it's speculated that East Coast defense contractors first used the phrase when traveling to the Bay Area for business. Another clue on its origins is in the 1970s when technology reporter Dan Hoefler published pieces with the header "Silicon Valley USA" after hearing a marketer use the term.

Laura Lorek, founder of Silicon Hills News— a publication that reports on tech in Austin and San Antonio—is an obvious fan of the phrase. She says she knew she wanted to name the publication that as soon as she saw that the domain name was available.

"Silicon Hills means much more than a comparison to Silicon Valley," Lorek wrote in an email to Austonia. "Central Texas is about silicon. Austin has decades of expertise as a chip manufacturer."

She pointed to engineers at the University of Texas at Austin creating the world's smallest memory storage device and to how roughly 70% of the world's cars contain Infineon chips made in Austin.

"The phrase 'Silicon Hills' communicates sophistication to anyone who knows about the roots of the technology industry," Lorek said. "The influence of the semiconductor industry laid the foundation for all the tech that has followed."

The phrase may be a welcome sign for the influx of tech workers flooding in from Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

But protest of the term is perhaps just the scratching the surface on larger feelings of "techlash": rising housing costs, displacement, new tools that sometimes seem more troubling than they do innovative, and a serious lack of workforce diversity. And for decades of residents who want Austin to keep its "weird" instead of emulating the Bay Area, a term so similar to "Silicon Valley" may not be welcome.

"Some people here love the tech industry and some people don't," Lorek said. "Silicon Hills represents change, and a lot of people are uncomfortable with change."

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