A brief history of computer jargon

Where do the techie words we use every day come from?

World of Word Craft

Computing is filled with jargon that we only understand because we've grown up knowing what the words mean. Yet in many cases, there's no clear logical reason why these specific terms took off.

'Keyboard' may seem like an easy word to trace the root of – a board covered with keys. But why 'keys'? This was a term first applied to the mechanics of musical instruments such as the piano, and only applied to other mechanical devices in the late 19th century. 'Keystroke', which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as 'the act or an instance of depressing a key on a keyboard' hails from 1910.

Most computing terms follow this pattern: borrowing words and then embedding them into the language until the original meaning is either forgotten or irrelevant. Take the word 'computer' itself. Computers of some form have been around since the mid-19th century – Charles Babbage created what most people agree was the first computer in 1837.

The original computers weren't machines at all, but people hired to perform calculations – literally 'to compute'. Babbage referred to his creation as the 'Analytical Engine' instead.

Word geekery

'Geek' and 'nerd' are two of the more interesting computing words floating around. 'Geek' is easy enough to trace back to the freak-shows of classic American carnivals: they were the ones biting the heads off live chickens and other such family-friendly stuff.

'Nerd' is tougher, and nobody is entirely sure where it comes from. The word was first seen in the Dr Seuss book If I Ran The Zoo back in 1951, but only as one of his many gibberish names. Supposedly, it raised its head again in 1957 as an abbreviation for the Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories, or NERD Labs.

Another oft-suggested possibility comes from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, which claims ownership of 'knurd' – 'drunk' backwards – as a term used to describe the kind of student who would have given up their Dungeons and Dragons manuals to avoid breaking a rule, had Dungeons and Dragons existed at that point.

What makes the whole thing even more intriguing is that 'geek' and 'nerd' are now synonymous, even though their origins place them at different ends of what pejorative science refers to as 'the freak spectrum'. As with many pejoratives, including the Japanese equivalent 'otaku', the idea of being a 'geek' has largely been reclaimed by the community. It now means an enthusiast, or someone who knows a lot about a niche subject. Conversely, few geeks want to be identified as a nerd, because it implies they're boring and antisocial.


More recent terms can be tricky, thanks to a double whammy of student whimsy and, later, backronyms (where originators come up with something that looks like an acronym, then fit words into it later on). For an example, look no further than the word 'daemon'. Supposedly it means 'Disk And Execution MONitor', but it's really just named after Maxwell's Daemon – a thought experiment created by a Scottish physicist in 1867 to explore the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

So, if you still think that the creator of the Security Analysis Tool for Auditing Networks typed out the short version and gasped in surprise, think again. Not all names that look like acronyms actually are.

ICQ, for instance, is meant to be read out – 'I Seek You'. The term 'i18n' is just a way of saving 18 characters when typing 'internationalisation'. And TWAIN doesn't stand for Technology Without An Interesting Name; it's just a word, as in 'never the twain'. That said, even its creators are resigned to its acronym status.

Recursive backronyms don't make things any easier. This is where the acronym also appears as one of its own words, most famously in 'GNU's Not Unix' and 'WINE Is Not an Emulator'. These can evolve over time, as happened with the email client PINE. It was originally named in homage to Elm, before being backronymed as Pine Is Nearly Elm, later adapted by the community as Pine Is Not Elm, before being renamed Pine Internet News and Email.

You know their names

It's not just people that get confused by this. Yahoo is named after the 'yahoos' – a race of deformed creatures from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels – but its official history still claims it stands for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. You'd think they'd come up with something snappier.

Many company names go the other direction, their history making them sound more impressive than they really deserve. Games company Lionhead may have a roaring lion as its mascot, but it's actually named after a dead hamster.

Likewise, Atari borrowed its name from Japan. You might think that was because of the country's proud gaming heritage, but the change was at least in part due to the fact that 'Syzygy' (the company's name at the time) was a nightmare to spell and pronounce.

Other interesting starting points include Lotus Notes (named after a meditation position practiced by its founder), eBay (Echo Bay Technology Group, which would have launched echobay.com had it not been taken by a gold mining company) and Red Hat (there are at least three different stories about this one, all about as official as the tale of how the Joker got his facial scars).

There's a story behind every name, every product and every bit of slang. In most cases, they're not that important. Sometimes, though, they're an easy way into the minds of the people who make the world what it is, and the true reason things are what they are. Aside from that, they make excellent trivia questions, too.

Article continues below