List of computer term etymologies

From Academic Kids

This is a list of the origins of computer-related terms (i.e. a list of computer term etymologies). It relates to both computer hardware and computer software.

Names of many computer terms, especially computer applications, often relate to the function they perform, e.g., a compiler is an application that compiles (programming language source code into the computer's machine language). There are other terms however whose history would indicate that it had less to do with the functionality, and hence are of etymological value. This article lists such terms.

For a list of the origins of names of computer companies see List of company name etymologies. For a complete list of etymological topics see Lists of etymologies


A - B - C - D - F - G - H - J - K - L - M - N - O - P - R - S - T - V - W - Z


A

  • ABEND - this term is short for abnormal end, and refers to a program stopping prematurely due to a bug. It is more commonly associated with mainframe programs, as this is its origin. Another purported origin of the term is that ABEND is called "abend" because it is what system operators do to the computer late on Friday when they want to call it a day, and hence is from the German word "Abend" meaning "Evening". This is untrue.
Originally this name was chosen by an author just because it was a catchy name. Soon enough, it was suggested that the name was indeed appropriate, because its founders got started by applying patches to code written for NCSA's httpd daemon. The result was 'A PAtCHy' server.
  • awk - a computer pattern/action language, name made up of the surnames of its authors Alfred V. Aho, Peter J. Weinberger, and Brian W. Kernighan

B

  • Bon programming language - Bon was created by Ken Thompson and named after his wife Bonnie. However according to an encyclopedia quotation in Bon's manual, it was named after a religion whose rituals involve the murmuring of magic formulas. [1] (http://cm.bell-labs.com/cm/cs/who/dmr/chist.html)
  • booting or bootstrapping - The term booting or bootstrapping a computer was inspired by the story of the Baron Munchhausen where he pulls himself out of a swamp by the straps on his boots.
The term is often (but erroneously) credited to Grace Hopper. In 1946, she joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where she traced an error in the Harvard Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay. This bug was carefully removed and taped to the log book. (See picture).
However, use of the word "bug" to describe defects in mechanical systems dates back to at least the 1870s. Thomas Edison, for one, used the term in his notebooks.
  • byte - the term was coined by Werner Buchholz in 1956 during the early design phase for the IBM Stretch computer. It was coined by mutating the word bite so it would not be accidentally misspelled as bit.

C

C++ creator Bjarne Stroustrup called his new language "C with Classes" and then "new C". Because of which the original C began to be called "old C" which was considered insulting to the C community. At this time Rick Mascitti suggested the name C++ as a successor to C. In C the '++' operator increments the value of the variable it is appended to, thus C++ would increment the value of C.
  • Cookie - A packet of information that travels between a browser and the web server.
The term was coined by web browser programmer Lou Montulli after the term "magic cookies" used by Unix programmers.

D - F

  • Daemon - a process in an operating system that runs in the background.
It is falsely considered an acronym for Disk And Execution MONitor. According to the original team that introduced the concept, "the use of the word daemon was inspired by the Maxwell's daemon of physics and thermodynamics (an imaginary agent which helped sort molecules of different speeds and worked tirelessly in the background)" [2] (http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/Daemon.html). The earliest use appears to have been in the phrase "daemon of Socrates", which meant his "guiding or indwelling spirit; his genius", also a pre-Christian equivalent of the "Guardian Angel", or, alternatively, a demigod (bearing only an etymological connection to the word "demon"). The term was embraced, and possibly popularized, by the Unix operating systems: various local (and later Internet) services were provided by daemons. This is exemplified by the BSD mascot, John Lasseter's drawing of a friendly imp (copyright Marshall Kirk McKusick). Thus, a daemon is something that works magically without anyone being much aware of it.
  • finger - Unix command that provides information about users logged into a system
Les Earnest wrote the finger program in 1971 to solve the need of users who wanted information on other users of the network. Prior to the finger program, the only way to get this information was with a who program that showed IDs and terminal line numbers for logged-in users, and people used to run their fingers down the "who" list. Earnest named his program after this concept.

G

Gnu is also a species of African antelope. Founder of the GNU project Richard Stallman liked the name because of the humour associated with its pronunciation and was also influenced by the song The Gnu Song [3] (http://www.poppyfields.net/poppy/songs/gnu.html), by Flanders and Swann which is a song sung by a gnu. Also it fitted into the recursive acronym culture with "GNU's Not Unix".
  • Google - search engine on the web.
The name started as a jokey boast about the amount of information the search-engine would be able to search. It was originally named 'Googol', a word for the number represented by 1 followed by 100 zeros. The word was originally invented by Milton Sirotta, nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner in 1938 during a discussion of large numbers and exponential notation. After the founders, Stanford grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, presented their project to an investor, they received a cheque made out to 'Google' !
  • Gopher - a distributed document search and retrieval network protocol on the internet
The source of the name is claimed to be three-fold: first, that it is used to "go-for" information; second, that it does so through a menu of links analogous to gopher holes; and third, that the mascot of the protocol authors' organization, the University of Minnesota, is Goldy the Gopher.
The name comes from a command in the Unix text editor ed that takes the form g/re/p meaning search globally for a regular expression and print lines where instances are found. "Grep" like "Google" is often used as a verb, meaning "to search".

H - J

Founder Jack Smith got the idea of accessing e-mail via the web from a computer anywhere in the world. When Sabeer Bhatia came up with the business plan for the mail service, he tried all kinds of names ending in 'mail' and finally settled for Hotmail as it included the letters "HTML" - the markup language used to write web pages. It was initially referred to as HoTMaiL with selective upper casing.
  • i18n - short for internationalization.
"18" is for the number of letters between the i and the n. The term l10n (for localization) has failed to catch on to the same degree, but is used by some.
ICQ is not an acronym. It is a play on the phrase "I seek you".
Jakarta was the name of the conference room at Sun where most of the meetings between Sun and Apache took place. The conference room was most likely named after Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, which is located on the northwest coast of the island of Java.
Originally called Oak by Java-creator James Gosling, from the tree that stood outside his window. The programming team at Sun had to look for a substitute name as there was already another programming language called Oak. "Java" was selected from a list of suggestions, primarily because a type of coffee is grown on the island of Java and, as the programmers drank a lot of coffee, this seemed an appropriate name.

K

When created by programmers at MIT in the 1970s, they wanted a name that respesented true security for the project, so they named it after the Greek mythology character kerberos, (also spelled Cerberus), who was said to be the monstorous three-headed hound of hades.

L

Linux creator Linus Torvalds originally used the Minix operating system on his computer, didn't like it, liked MS-DOS less, and started a project to develop an operating system that would address the problems of Minix. Hence the working name was Linux (Linus' Minix). He thought the name to be too egoistical and planned to name it Freax (free + freak + x). His friend Ari Lemmke encouraged Linus to upload it to a network so it could be easily downloaded. Ari gave Linus a directory called linux on his FTP server, as he did not like the name Freax.
Some say it is an acronym for Local Integrated Software Architecture, others that it was named after the daughter of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and that the acronym was invented later to fit the name, expanding the acronym to Let's Invent Some Acronym.

M

from McIntosh, a popular type of apple. Jef Raskin, a computer scientist, is credited with this naming.
from "Mac", a shortened form of Macintosh and a commonly-used name for the Macintosh computer system (see elsewhere on this page), and "OS", the common abbreviation for "operating system".
Coined by Donald Michie in his 1968 paper Memo Functions and Machine Learning.
When Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, created a browser to replace the Mosaic browser, it was internally named Mozilla (Mosaic-Killer, Godzilla). When Netscape's Navigator source code was made open source, Mozilla was the internal name for the open source version.

N - O

  • Nerd - A colloquial term for a computer person, especially an obsessive, singularly focused one.
Earlier spelling of the term is "Nurd" and the original spelling is "Knurd", but the pronunciation has remained the same. The term originated at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the late 1940s. Students who partied, and rarely studied were called "Drunks", while the opposite - students who never partied and always studied were "Knurd" ("Drunk" spelled backwards). The term was also (independently) used in a Dr. Seuss book, and on the TV show Happy Days, giving it national popularity.
  • Nibble - Also spelled nybble. The name used to describe four bits, which is half a byte. Hence the humorous name, nibble.
Novell, Inc. was originally Novell Data Systems co-founded by George Canova. The name was suggested by George's wife who mistakenly thought that "Novell" meant "new" in French.
Larry Ellison, Ed Oates and Bob Miner were working on a consulting project for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). The code name for the project was called Oracle (the CIA evidently saw this as a system that would give answers to all questions). The project was designed to use the newly written SQL database language from IBM. The project eventually was terminated but they decided to finish what they started and bring it to the world. They kept the name Oracle and created the RDBMS engine.

P

The term comes from paku paku which is a Japanese slang to describe the opening and closing of the mouth. The game was released in Japan with the name Puck-Man, and released in the US with the name Pac-Man, fearing that kids may deface a Puck-Man cabinet by changing the P to an F.
PCMCIA cards were developed by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (an international standards association) as a standard for devices such as modems and external hard disk drives to be connected to notebook computers. Over time, the acronym PCMCIA has come to mean the form factor used for wireless networking cards on notebook computers. (A twist on the acronym is People Can't Memorise Computer Industry Acronyms).
The fifth microprocessor in the 80x86 series. It would have been called i586 or 80586, but Intel decided to name it Pentium (penta = five) after it lost a trademark infringement lawsuit against AMD (the judgment was that numbers like "286", "386", and "486" could not be trademarked). According to Intel, Pentium conveys a meaning of strength, like titanium.
Since some early Pentium chips contained a mathematical precision error, it has been jokingly suggested that the reason for the chip being named Pentium rather than 586 was that Intel chips would calculate 486 + 100 = 585.99999948.
Perl was originally named Pearl, after the "pearl of great price" of Matthew 13:46. Larry Wall, the creator of Perl, wanted to give the language a short name with positive connotations and claims to have looked at (and rejected) every three- and four-letter word in the dictionary. He even thought of naming it after his wife Gloria. Before the language's official release Wall discovered that there was already a programming language named Pearl, and changed the spelling of the name. Although the original manuals suggested the backronyms "Practical Extraction and Report Language" and "Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister", these were intended humorously.
  • PHP - a server-side scripting language. Originally called "Personal Home Page Tools" by creator Rasmus Lerdorf, it was rewritten by developers Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans who gave it the recursive name "PHP Hypertext Preprocessor".
Acronym for "Program for Internet News & Email". It is also a self-referential acronym for "Pine Is Not Elm" (in reference to Elm, another email client)
  • Ping - computer network tool used to detect hosts
The author of ping, Mike Muuss, named it after the pulses of sound made by a sonar called a "ping". Later Dave Mills provided the backronym "Packet Internet Groper".

R

Radio buttons got their name from the preset buttons in radio receivers. When one used to select preset stations on a radio receiver physically instead of electronically, depressing one preset button would pop out whichever other button happened to be pushed in.
Company founder Marc Ewing was given the Cornell lacrosse team cap (with red and white stripes) while at college by his grandfather. People would turn to him to solve their problems, and he was referred to as "that guy in the red hat". He lost the cap and had to search for it desperately. The manual of the beta version of Red Hat Linux had an appeal to readers to return his Red Hat if found by anyone.
Based on the surnames of the authors of this algorithm -- Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Len Adleman.

S

  • Samba software - a free implementation of Microsoft's networking protocol. The name samba comes from inserting two vowels into the name of the standard protocol that Microsoft Windows network file system use, called SMB (Server Message Block). The author searched a dictionary using grep for words containing S M and B in that order; the only matches were Samba and Salmonberry.
The company was called "Santa Cruz Operation", as its office was in Santa Cruz, California.
  • sed - stands for stream editor, used for textual transformation of a sequential stream of text data. It is modelled after the ed editor.
  • shareware - coined by Bob Wallace to describe his word processor PC-Write in early 1983. Prior to this Jim Button and Andrew Fluegelman called their distributed software "user supported software" and "freeware" respectively, but it was Wallace's terminology that stuck.
While registering the domain, Slashdot-creator Rob Malda wanted to make the URL silly, and unpronounceable ("http://slashdot.org" gets pronounced as "h t t p colon slash slash slash dot dot org")
  • Sosumi - one of the system sounds introduced in Apple Computer's System 7 operating system in 1991.
Apple Computer had a long litigation history with Apple Records, the Beatles' recording company. Fearing that the ability to record musical sound would cause yet more legal action, the Apple legal department allegedly ordered the sound to be renamed from its original, musical name. So the developers changed the name to Sosumi ("So sue me"). Depending on who was asked, they quipped that it was Japanese for either "absence of sound" or "a light pleasing tone".
  • Spam - unwanted repetitious messages, such as unsolicited bulk e-mail
The term spam is derived from the Monty Python SPAM sketch, set in a cafe where everything on the menu includes SPAM luncheon meat. While a customer plaintively asks for some kind of food without SPAM in it, the server reiterates the SPAM-filled menu. Soon, a chorus of Vikings join in with a song: "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM, wonderful SPAM", over and over again, drowning out all conversation. (Hormel Food's position on the use of the term is at http://www.spam.com/ci/ci_in.htm )
  • SPIM - the assembly language used on MIPS processors, is simply MIPS spelled backwards. MIPS stands for Millions of Instructions Per Second, from way back when that was something to boast of. In recent time, SPIM has also come to mean SPam sent over Instant Messaging.
  • Swing - a graphics library for Java.
Swing was the code-name of the project that developed the new graphic components (the successor of AWT). It was named after swing, a style of dance band jazz that was popularized in the 1930s and unexpectedly revived in the 1990s. Although an unofficial name for the components, it gained popular acceptance with the use of the word in the package names for the Swing API, which begin with javax.swing.

T - V

Tomcat was the code-name for the JSDK 2.1 project inside Sun. Tomcat started off as a servlet specification implementation by James Duncan Davidson who was a software architect at Sun. Davidson had initially hoped that the project would be made open-source, and since most open-source projects had O'Reilly books on them with an animal on the cover, he wanted to name the project after an animal. He came up with Tomcat since he reasoned the animal represented something that could take care of and fend for itself.
  • Troff - a document processing system for Unix
Troff stands for "typesetter roff", although many people have speculated that it actually means "Times roff" because of the use of the Times font family in troff by default. Troff has its origins from Roff, an earlier formatting program, whose name is a contraction of "run off".
The term is derived from the classical myth of the Trojan Horse. Analogously, a Trojan horse appears innocuous (or even to be a gift), but in fact is a vehicle for bypassing security.
When Bell Labs pulled out of MULTICS (MULTiplexed Information and Computing System), which was originally a joint Bell Labs/GE/MIT project, Ken Thompson of Bell Labs, soon joined by Dennis Ritchie, wrote a simpler version of the operating system. They needed the OS to run the game Space War which had been compiled under MULTICS. The new OS was called UNICS - UNIplexed operating and Computing System by Brian Kernighan. An alternative spelling was Eunuchs, it being a sort of 'reduced' MULTICS. It was later shortened to Unix.
  • vi - a text editor, initialism for visual, a command in the ex editor which helped users to switch to the visual mode from the ex mode.
  • Vim - a text editor, acronym for Vi improved after Vim added several features over the vi editor. Vim however had started out as an imitation of Vi and was expanded as Vi imitation.
The term virus was first used in print by Fred Cohen in his 1984 paper "Experiments with Computer Viruses", where he credits Len Adleman with coining it. Although Cohen's use of virus may have been the first academic use, it had been in the common parlance long before that. A mid-1970s science fiction novel by David Gerrold, When H.A.R.L.I.E. was One, includes a description of a fictional computer program called VIRUS that worked just like a virus (and was countered by a program called ANTIBODY). The term "computer virus" also appears in the comic book "Uncanny X-Men" No. 158, published in 1982.

W - Z

Coined by Ward Cunningham, the creator of the wiki concept, who named them for the "wiki wiki" or "quick" shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport. Wiki wiki was the first Hawai'ian term he learned on his first visit to the islands. The airport counter agent directed him to take the wiki wiki bus between terminals.
The name 'worm' was taken from a 1970s science fiction novel by John Brunner entitled The Shockwave Rider. The book describes programs known as "tapeworms" which spread through a network for the purpose of deleting data. Researchers writing an early paper on experiments in distributed computing noted the similarities between their software and the program described by Brunner, and adopted that name.
X derives its name as a successor to a pre-1983 window system called W (the W Window System). X follows W in the alphabet.
It is an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle". The word "Yahoo" was originally invented by Jonathan Swift and used in his book Gulliver's Travels. It represents a person who is repulsive in appearance and action and is barely human. Yahoo! founders Jerry Yang and David Filo selected the name because they considered themselves yahoos.
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