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.
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
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.
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Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.