Tag Archives: terminology

What’s e-new? Technology terminology

Of bits, nerds and cookies

Computing has added many words to our vernacular, as well as bending the meanings of others and repurposing them. This article explores the roots of some common terms we take for granted or might have been bemused by.

Acronyms, abbreviations and portmanteaus

Computer terminology loves acronyms, abbreviations and portmanteaus for their ability to create a simpler term from something more long-winded. Your computer is bristling with these – disks are connected by USB (Universal Serial Bus) or SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment); data is copied into RAM (random-access memory); the images reach your monitor via an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) connector, and data is sent around in bits (binary digits).

Many acronyms and abbreviations come from people’s names. For example the RSA algorithm, which is at the heart of most security on the internet, is named after its authors: Rivest, Shamir and Adleman. Meanwhile the Linux operating system takes its name from its original author, Linus Torvalds, who wrote it as a version of Unix.

Technology has often relied on abbreviations for practical reasons. In the early days of text messages, abbreviations were essential to fit a short message length with limited typing capability. Early computing systems used modems to connect to the internet, and transmission speeds were slow (remember the fun of waiting for an image to download with a modem?), so abbreviations slimmed down messages. This has carried over into social media today. One example pertinent to editors is TL;DR, which means ‘too long; don’t read’. Perhaps we should reclaim this as NAE – needs an editor.


Some words are complete inventions. For some reason, customer support seems to provide a rich seam of these. Maybe this says something about the job? Two examples are PEBKAC (problem exists between chair and keyboard) and the error code Id10t (I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourself). Terms for the user seem to be a common theme – perhaps this confirms the stereotype of computer people not always being people people! My favourite has to be ‘wetware’ or ‘liveware’, which interfaces more or less neatly with the hardware and software.


Repurposing or flexing the meaning of language has always happened, and the terminology of technology is no different. Many of the most common terms have come to us via this route.

One good example is the term ‘surf’, as in ‘surfing the internet’. One of the first uses in the computing context was in 1992. Before that the term for the practice of riding on boards on waves can potentially be traced back to 15th-century Hawaii. In the 20th century surfing became more popular in the US, especially in 1960s California. It seems to be around the 1980s that some new uses started to appear – ‘van surfing’ (dancing on a van roof); ‘train surfing’ (riding on the roof of a train) and then ‘channel surfing’ (hopping from channel to channel using a TV remote control). I suspect it was a short hop for Silicon Valley to borrow and adopt the term from there.

Your average computer geek’s (originally meaning ‘fool’ or ‘freak’ in Middle Low German, but has become a slang term for a slightly obsessive enthusiast) reading matter often draws inspiration from some odd sources. Nerd, another term for the stereotypical slightly obsessive computer person, appears to come from the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo. Cookie, a term for a small packet of information passed between a web browser and web server, came from ‘magic cookies’ used by programmers, which in turn has its roots in fortune cookies, as it is a small container for information.

Often history has had a hand in the repurposing of words. Patch is a good example of this. The term is now used to describe a series of changes to computer code to fix problems or improve the code. If you look at the update history on your computer, you can often see references to patches. This comes from the time when paper tapes or punched cards were used to put information into computers. When you needed to change a program, you had to cut out part of the tape and patch in a new bit. Meanwhile ‘bug’, used to describe an error in computer code, is often wrongly attributed to Second World War computing pioneer Grace Hopper, who tracked down a problem to a moth caught in one of the computer’s relays (a sort of mechanical switch). She taped it into the logbook for the computer with the word ‘bug!’ written next to it. However there are earlier records of bug being used to describe defects in mechanical systems as far back as the 1870s, and Thomas Edison certainly used the term in his notes.


Some computing terminology has, like any language, acquired problematic terms. Recently I worked on a computing book that referred heavily to the ‘master–slave system’. This term refers to a computing system (or part of one) where one piece of equipment or component has a controlling (master) function. The term is decades old, and a recent article in Wired found that in 1976 67,000 US patents used it. Unfortunately, this means it is deeply embedded in many technologies, despite being rooted in unacceptable practices and discriminatory language.

In the book I worked on this led to a lot of discussion, as the term is so well understood that really it needs an industry-wide agreement on what to use instead. Fortunately the company whose technology the book was about was happy to implement its own approach, using ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ instead.

The issue raises a lot of questions within the industry, highlighting yet another area in society that suffers from a lack of diversity. Wired’s article on this, ‘Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels “Master” and “Slave”’, is an interesting insight into why changes like this take so long.

As you can see, like any new innovation, technology has adopted, stolen, repurposed and occasionally mangled existing language in order to describe itself. And these new words have then been incorporated into more general English usage, often with further repurposing.

About Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson is a reformed engineer and primary teacher, and a Professional Member of CIEP. He is a copyeditor and proofreader specialising In STEM subjects and odd formats like LaTeX.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: cookies by Jason Jarrach; surfer by Jeremy Bishop, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Forum matters: Editorial terminology: Grammar, inclusivity and meaning

In this article one CIEP forum moderator looks at discussions of terminology in the CIEP forums:

  • What is terminology?
  • Grammar terminology
  • Look it up!
  • Hold on – what is copyediting?
  • Being inclusive
  • Niche knowledge
  • Just ask!

What is terminology?

Terminology. Definitions. Vocabulary. Jargon. The meaning of things. The official definition is ‘the body of terms used with a particular technical application in a subject of study, profession, etc.’ (Lexico). This term can definitely be applied to editing, which has a marvellous lexicon of editing terms, such as widows, orphans, ligatures, en dash, justify, leading and kerning, which new editors may puzzle over.

Grammar terminology

It’s very common to know instinctively that something ‘looks wrong’ when you’re editing, but you may not have the knowledge of grammar terminology to be able to confidently say what is wrong, and why*. Perhaps you weren’t taught formal grammar at school, or perhaps you learned about grammar a long time ago and your skills are rusty. The new CIEP Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation course is designed to give students the skills, terminology and confidence to be a better editor.

This confusion is not helped by the fact that many grammatical terms are known by more than one name: is it a gapping comma or an elided comma? An adverbial or adjectival phrase? A dangling participle or a dangling modifier? And what’s it called when you start a sentence with ‘so’ – and why is it so common today?

And for the last word in terminology? The CIEP proofreading and copyediting courses include access to a Resource centre which contains – among many other useful documents – a glossary of all the publishing and editorial terms you will ever need, from ‘abbreviation’ to ‘Word template’. There’s also a glossary in the back of New Hart’s Rules – my go-to style guide. For fiction editors, MH Abrams’ and Geoffrey Harpham’s A Glossary of Literary Terms will come in useful.

*You’ll need to be registered for the fiction forum to see this post.

Look it up!

One of the skills that it’s essential for an editor or proofreader to master is knowing when to look something up, knowing where to look it up, then actually looking it up and applying the answer to the text they’re working on. The forums can be super useful for this too.

Not sure whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? See ‘who/whom – going cross-eyed’.

Do verb tenses make you tense? Then see ‘Please help with some technical jargon’.

Hold on – what is copyediting?

One of the questions editors and proofreaders are asked most often is: what is copyediting? What is line editing? What’s the difference between them? Unfortunately, there is no one universally accepted definition of these terms. Some people think that they are very different beasts, while some people think they are the same thing. And what about proof-editing? What does that involve – and where do you draw the line?

The most important thing is that editors and proofreaders tell clients clearly what service their project needs, and list the tasks they will carry out on a job. That way, there’s no confusion. For more guidance on this, see What is proofreading? and What is copyediting?

Being inclusive

It’s not just editing terminology we need to consider. We also need to think about the words we use around disability, age, ethnicity, culture and sexuality. These are always changing, and editors and proofreaders must keep up with these changes.

Threads on these topics come up a lot on the forums – here’s a selection you may like to read. I guarantee that you will learn something!

A thread on ‘What is a female-headed household?’ led to a passionate discussion on terminology, as did threads on ‘Is “pro-poor” the best term to use?’, ‘Is the phrase “Black, indigenous and people of colour” acceptable?’, ‘People of colour’ and one on the best wording to use around mental health.

I especially enjoyed the thoughtful discussion on these threads on sexist terms and whether or not we should refer to master copies, which referenced a session on sensitivity issues in a recent Cloud Club meeting.

Finally, one thread contains some helpful suggestions for resources around inclusive language.

Whichever words you choose to use, remember this: ‘Your words have power. Speak words that are kind, loving, positive, uplifting, encouraging, and life-giving’ (unknown author).

Niche knowledge

Of course, discussion on the forums isn’t always serious. There are plenty of light-hearted threads too, such as these on betting, butterflies and bridges.

And if you want to tell someone you’re a copyeditor without telling them you’re a copyeditor, is there any better way than to enquire: Should liturgical Latin terms be set in italic?

Just ask!

As ever, the forums are wonderfully diverse resources of all kinds of knowledge. If you want to know the answer to something, and you’ve tried looking in your library of style guides, editing guides and reference books, then ask on the forums. Someone is bound to know.

This feature comes from the band of CIEP members who volunteer as forum moderators. You will only be able to access links to the posts if you’re a forum user and logged in. Find out how to register.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: typesetting tools by Etienne Girardet; Welcome by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.