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date: 30 May 2023


Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable
Susie Dent


An internet business that manages online auctions and other forms of shopping. It was founded in California in 1995 by French-born Iranian computer programmer Pierre Omidyar. Initially called AuctionWeb, its name was officially changed to eBay in 1997 (the lower-case ‘e’ being a common abbreviation for ‘electronic’ in the world of computing, as in ‘e-mail’).

In its early days, the business was essentially unregulated, but as its popularity grew, it became necessary to restrict or forbid the buying and selling of various items, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, Nazi paraphernalia, firearms, live animals, used underwear, and human organs (one man tried to sell one of his kidneys for transplant purposes in 1999). It is an especially important market for collectibles, and everything from the apparently worthless to the astonishingly expensive may be found for sale. A partially eaten, ten-year-old toasted cheese sandwich thought to bear the image of the Virgin Mary sold in 2004 for $28,000. In 2008, a secondhand camera bought on eBay was found to contain confidential photos, fingerprints and documents relating to MI6 terror suspects.