The Origins of High-Tech's Made-Up Lingo

From blog, byte and browser to software, wiki and World Wide Web.

Technology we take for granted today was new not so long ago, and somebody had to name it. Though sometimes it's hard to pin down exactly who deserves credit—or blame—here's a shot a some of the more familiar ones.


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BLOG: Short for "weblog," the word is traced to Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom website in 1997 in which he began "logging the Web" by collecting information he came across. Peter Merholz is credited with contributing to use of the term in 1999 in his weblog by stating, "I've decided to pronounce the word 'weblog' as 'wee-blog. Or 'blog' for short."

BYTE: A measurement of information storage coined in 1956 by Werner Buchholz during the design phase of the IBM Stretch computer to describe how much data a computing machine might "bite," with the spelling changed so not to be confused with "bit."  (See computer history of IBM Stretch.)

BROWSER: Often called the "Father of the Web," Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 invented software he called "WorldWideWeb." But Berners-Lee says the term "browser" predates the Web as there were hypermedia browsers. (See below, WORLD WIDE WEB and HYPERTEXT)

CELL PHONE: AT&T Bell Labs engineer William Rae Young is credited with suggesting the hexagonal cell concept for a cellular mobile phone. Young's technical work was referenced in an internal document written by co-worker Douglas H. Ring in 1947 on how to build a wide-area cellular service. The first mobile telephone call had been made from a car in St. Louis on June 17, 1946, but it was far from what we think of as a portable handset today. The equipment weighed 80 lbs, and the AT&T service, basically a massive party line, cost $30 per month plus 30 to 40 cents per local call. But Bell Labs was beaten to the punch for the first cellular phone call. That was made by Martin Cooper, then general manager of Motorola's Communications Systems Division, as he carried a hefty cell phone through New York City and placed a call to his rival, Joel Engels at Bell Labs, on April 3, 1973.

CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER: According to the Computer History Museum, the C-level position for IT is believed to have started in military and government, then becoming adopted by industry. William Synnott and William Gruber get credit for the term in 1981.

COMPUTER VIRUS: A phrase widely used today to describe self-replicating and invasive software, the invention of the phrase is credited to Leonard Max Adelman who suggested it to researcher Fred Cohen for his 1984 study "Experiments with Computer Viruses." Adelman is also co-inventor of the RSA (which stands for Rivest-Shamir-Adelman) cryptosystem.

FRACTAL: Coined by IBM researcher and mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in 1967 in a paper he published in Science, this word means a mathematical description of the kind of complex irregularities existing in nature, such as branching of trees. Fractal geometry, and the study of fractals, is part of mathematics, earth sciences, economics and computer graphics and animation.

HYPERTEXT: Ted Nelson coined the words "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in 1965 and worked with Andries van Dam on the development of the Hypertext Editing System in 1968 at Brown University. With its prefix "hyper" from the Greek for "beyond, over," hypertext is text on a computer that can take the user to other hypertext information through connections called hyperlinks. The first practicable use of hypertext is credited to Douglas Engelbart with the "oN-Line System" (NLS) developed at Stanford Research Center in the 1960's. Engelbart is also co-inventor with Bill English of the computer mouse.

INTERNET: According to the Computer History Museum, the term used in the context of TCP/IP networking was most likely introduced in IETF RFC675, "Specification of Internet Transmission Protocol program" by Vint Cerf, Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine, which was published in 1974.

MAINFRAME: Uncertain origin, but the Computer History Museum believes the use of term "main frame," originating in pre-computer days in the mechanical and telecom industries, arose in the first half of the 1960s as a reference to a central processor of the computer, or more generally the computer without the peripherals. The compound word "mainframe" developed closer to the 1970s as smaller mini-computers were common to identify the larger, general purpose machines. According to the Museum, "IBM, the company most people today would associate with being a mainframe manufacturer, did not embrace the term as a name for a category of computers until probably the early 1980s. You certainly will not find the word 'mainframe' in the 1964 IBM System/360 Principles of Operation."

MALWARE: A term to describe the wide range of malicious code, it was first used by Yisrael Radai on July 4, 1990, in a public posting in which he wrote: "Trojans constitute only a very small percentage of malware (a word I just coined for trojans, viruses, worms, etc)." Chris Klaus gets credit for being the first to widely use the word malware in presentations.

ONE-TRANSITOR DYNAMIC RAM (DRAM) – Almost all computer chips today use Dynamic Random Access memory (DRAM) technology in which each bit of information is stored in a memory cell consisting of one transistor and a tiny capacitor. IBM researcher Robert Dennard was awarded U.S. patent #3,387,286 in 1968. Today's DRAM chips typically store 64 million bits, and DRAM is a key component of a wide variety of computers and electronics.

PUBLIC KEY, PRIVATE KEY: Whitfield Diffie says he coined the term "public key" in the spring of 1975 to describe the encryption method he was formulating during his time as an "itinerant cryptographer" getting by on a Stanford University research grant with support from an understanding wife with a corporate job.

Today, Diffie's visionary public-key encryption concept is widely regarded as a eureka moment in data security. Users no longer had to exchange a secret key—which had to always be kept secret—to encrypt and decrypt messages to each other. Instead, a public key for a message recipient could be published to the world that was tied to a secret key -- Diffie called it the "private-key"—that the recipient would use to unlock the scrambled data. Diffie, who presented his public-private key exchange ideas at the National Computer Conference in 1976, teamed with Stanford University professor Marty Hellman to publish the paper "New Directions in Cryptography" the same year.

Diffie says the development and elaboration of the public-private key pair is as much Hellman's work as his own. Diffie isn't wholly satisfied he choose the word "private" to coin the term "private key" since "privacy has so many different meanings," he points out. But he adds the world would do well to consider his wife, Mary Fischer, to whom he's been married 35 years, "the Mother of Public-Key Cryptography" because she was both inspiration and support in the difficult early days of its invention.

REDUCED INSTRUCTION SET COMPUTING: Based on an invention by IBM scientist John Cocke in the early 1970's, RISC is the acronym widely used to describe a CPU design strategy based on the notion that simplified instructions that "do less" may still provide for higher performance, giving rise to the expression "RISC-based architectures" to describe how some computers work.  (Bio of John Cocke.)

ROUTER: No one individual seems to be responsible for picking the word, but many Internet pioneers of the TCP/IP community in the 1980s had been calling the equipment "gateways" and Cisco at one point even called them "terminal concentrators." But in part to differentiate from other types of equipment also called gateways (such as e-mail gateways), the early developers began adopting the term "router." Noel Chiappa, who started work on the multi-protocol Proteon router in 1980, points out that even IETF RFC #1009 ("Requirements for Internet Gateways") in June 1987 used the term "router" throughout. At that point, the transition from "gateway" to "router" was officially underway.

SOCKET: The earliest use of the networking use of the word "socket" is found in IETF RFC33, dated Feb. 12, 1970, by Stephen Carr, Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf. According to the Computer History Museum, Crocker wrote: "The elements of the name space are called sockets. A socket forms one end of a connection, and a connection is fully specified by a pair of sockets." The Museum adds: "This is about a dozen years before BSD sockets showed up."

SOFTWARE: Instructions executed by a computer as opposed to the physical device on which they run, hardware. Term coined in 1958 by John Wilder Tukey, statistician, Princeton University professor and AT&T Bell Laboratories researcher, who also coined the word "bit" (abbreviation of binary digit") 12 years earlier. (See biography of John Wilder Tukey)

WIKI: Ward Cunningham said the inspiration for the name WikiWikiWeb for the software he developed in 1995 came after a trip to Hawaii where he learned of the word "wiki," which means "quick" in Hawaiian, while riding on a shuttle bus called the Wiki Wiki Bus. WikiWikiWeb was shortened to "Wiki," and today a "wiki" refers to a collaborative Website that lets multiple authors contribute and edit content, with the most famous being Wikipedia.

WORLD WIDE WEB: Father of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee describes his early work with the Web in notes on the World Wide Web Consortium site. "The first web browser—a browser-editor—was called 'WorldWideWeb,' as after all, when it was written in 1990, it was the only way to see the web. Much later it was named 'Neus' in order to save confusion between the program and the abstract information space, which is now spelled 'World Wide Web' with spaces."

Special thanks on this project go to Alex Bochannek, curator with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.; IBM; the World Wide Web Consortium; and pioneers such as router designer Noel Chiappa who helped the Internet get going.

This story, "The Origins of High-Tech's Made-Up Lingo" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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