Words like ‘spam’, ‘mouse’ and ‘hacker’ are ones that we instantly associate with technology. As we tend to use them very regularly in a world dominated by tech, they have become a natural part of our lexicon. They are so natural, in fact, that we rarely question where these terms originate or why they have been used to describe technology. Why has the device to control a computer’s cursor been named after a small rodent? How has the name of canned processed meat become a way to describe unwanted messages? There are fascinating stories behind many of these common tech terms that you probably didn’t know. We look at ten of the most popular and find out their origins.
Hacking is a word now synonymous with the dark side of the internet. It’s a common tech term that describes a computer user who breaks into software and uses its data. However, the origins of the word ‘hacking’ are remarkably different. In the past, it was used to describe someone who was a tech guru. The book ‘Piracy Cultures‘ says that the term was first applied to tech in the 1980s and meant someone who “works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programing for its own sake”. Some people have attempted to reclaim its original meaning, calling those who break into software ‘crackers’ instead.
It’s hardly a surprise to find out that robots have their origins in science fiction. However, the work of fiction to coin the common tech term was not a H.G. Wells or Philip K. Dick story; it was a Czech language play from 1921. It was called ‘R.U.R.‘ and told the story of a factory that makes artificial people who eventually rise up to wipe out the human race. Today, a robot is no longer just a science fiction character, though. Robots are now a reality and are being used in fields like military and healthcare. Furthermore, the play’s writer Karel Capek’s vision of the future might not have been too far off. Bill Gates believes that they will one day be an essential part of every company, forcing many humans out of a job.
Everyone has seen a meme in some shape or form. A meme is any form of information that is imitated across the internet, be it a link, image or video. However, while we’ve all experienced a meme, many of us don’t know the story behind its name. This common tech term was coined by none other than Richard Dawkins who used the word in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene‘. Of course, this was many years before Good Guy Greg or the Harlam Shake. Therefore, Dawkins could never have anticipated its widespread use across the internet. However, it still bares resemblance to the original meaning: the way cultural information spreads. Dawkin adapted it from the Greek word ‘mimeme’ which describes a thing that’s imitated, and it is also closely related to the French word ‘même’ which means ‘same’.
Most people believe that the common tech term ‘bug’ came from computer programmer Grace Hopper, who literally found a bug in her system. Hopper was working on Harvard University’s electromechanical computer in 1947 when she found a dead moth in the relay. Ever since, any technical hiccup became known as a bug. However, Hopper and her staff weren’t the first to use it; that would have been Thomas Edison. In 1873, aged 26, he called a fault with his quadruplex telegram system a ‘bug’. He wrote in his notebook: “Awful lot of bugs still.” His journals showed that he continued to use the word throughout his career, too.
Every time you get an email telling you you’ve “won the lottery” and you mark it as ‘spam’, you have the British comedians Monty Python to thank for its name. The common tech term for copious amounts of junk messages derives from a sketch in which everything in a cafe contains spam. One disgruntled woman insists that she doesn’t like spam, and soon the patrons begin to relentlessly chant and sing the word ‘spam’. The sketch remained popular even in the internet age and the word was later used to describe annoying and unwanted stuff that’s everywhere.
On the Windows Registry, a database that stores configuration settings for operating systems, branches are stored in numerous disk files called hives. The origin of this common tech term is something of a practical joke that existed among Microsoft employees. One of the developers was so afraid of bees that the people responsible for the registry decided to fill it with bee references. To make fun of him, they called the area where data is stored ‘cells’ and the files themselves became ‘hives’. The name has stuck ever since.
Douglas Engelbart, the creator of the mouse who passed away last year, never really opened up about the origins of its name. He claimed that no one could remember why they chose it, except the device bared a slight resemblance to a mouse with a tail. However, a hardware designer who worked on the technology at the time, Roger Bates, has a slightly different recollection. He wrote in his book ‘What The Dormouse Said‘ that the cursor on the screen used to be called a CAT. The navigational device was called a ‘mouse’ because it would chase the cursor.
A programmer of games and educational software, John Barger, decided to create a website in 1997 to share his thoughts on whatever he so desired. He wrote about computing, artificial intelligence and James Joyce. He called the website a “weblog”, seeing as it logged his thoughts and feelings via the web. Two years later, the term was reworked by Peter Merholz who shortened it down to just ‘blog’ for his own personal site. It became a common tech term later that year when Pyra Labs decided to create a website that would allow people to set up their own similar online journals and called it Blogger. It remains a popular platform for blogging today. Meanwhile, the act itself is a pastime that millions of people all over the globe have engaged in.
The inventor of the cookie, Lou Montulli, explained why he chose the word ‘cookies’ to describe small pieces of information stored on websites. “I had heard the term ‘magic cookie’ from an operating systems course from college,” he wrote on his blog. “The term has a somewhat similar meaning to the way Web Cookies worked and I liked the term ‘cookies’ for aesthetic reasons.” So where did the term magic cookies come from? There’s no explanation, but it’s believed to have derived from an old arcade video game in which players collect them to progress.
In the real world, a firewall is a barrier that has been designed inside a building to protect it in the event of a fire. In technology, it works in much the same way. It’s a digital barrier that protects software from external problems getting in and causing damage. Although it’s now a common tech term, the word was used in a technological sense for the first time in 1988 by the Digital Equipment Corporation, who published a paper about a filter system known as packet filter firewalls.
Featured photo credit: Stuart Anthony via flickr.com