On The Terminology Of Technology
Technology defines us as a species. The use of tools is one of the prime differentiators of the human race, and the reason we have survived in a world full of much more biologically well equipped species. And of course language is one of humanities other main traits, so it is natural that the computer industry, perhaps the crowning example of our capacity for creating amazing tools, has its own unique vocabulary or jargon. Many of the terms are merely repurposed words with new meanings, while others have new spellings, and still others are completely new words. The repurposed terms are perhaps the most intriguing, as they have history, and it can be useful to discover or think about why someone would use an existing word for a completely different purpose.
Many technology terms are humorous, such as the word bug, which in the technology industry refers to errors or problems in either software or physical devices, not insects. According to Douglas Harper the use of the word bug (first spelled bugge) was originally to describe scary, bad things, and of course later (around 1620) came to mean an insect. It was in 1878 that, for the first recorded time, it was used to refer to unintentional problems with manufactured devices. The first time it was known to have been used in the computer industry, as stated by the Technology Dictionary was after an engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center found and removed a dead moth in a relay in their early computer system that had been causing problems. This moth is now kept in the Smithsonian Museum.
Then there are words that have a relatively similar meaning to their non-technological denotation, such as "Tablet." Originally a French word for slab, again according to Etymology Online, this word has come to mean a writing surface, and more recently, around the 19th century, a sheaf of paper. To those in the computer industry, "tablet" refers to a touchscreen computer, usually without a keyboard. Usually you can draw on tablets, as well. There are also electronic writing surfaces for drawing and graphic design, such as those made by Wacom, that are called tablets, and even look somewhat similar in appearance to a the traditional type of tablet. As you can see, there is a definite similarity to the original definition here.
Tablet is a particularly important word, since tablets as a product category are poised to take over from traditional laptops as our primary portable computing device. Therefore it is ironic, I believe, that these devices have a name that is not a new word, or even a substantially different meaning of a word. Many important categories of devices do have unique names, such as smartphones, televisions and of course laptops - none of those words have meanings outside of technology.
On the other hand, there are words that are established parts of our English vocabulary, but in the computer industry have almost entirely different meanings. We’ve already seen one, bug, but here’s another example: "Scan," which has several contradictory meanings, including: to thoroughly and repeatedly inspect, or contrariwise to quickly examine. In technology, meanwhile, scan alludes to the act of digitizing an object or document; "Scanners" are devices that, in the words of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, "examine successive small portions of (as an object) with a sensing device (as a photometer or a beam of radiation)" This meaning of the word could also be applied to medical devices, as well as scanners like those that are connected to computers, so these words can be applied to other related fields as well.
Sometimes words are intentionally misspelled to create new words. The word byte is a prime example; It’s a word that is unique to the technology industry, yet is simply a misspelled normal English word, and it again reveals the humor of many of the early computer pioneers. The word now means eight bits, but early on in the history of computers it just meant a group of bits, anything from two to sixty four. According to the Technology Dictionary, there are many theories about how it was coined at IBM in 1956, including the rather hilarious idea that it was an acronym for "Binary Yoked Transfer Element", with Yoked making reference to a team of oxen, since a byte is a "team" of bits.
"Byte" is also interesting for the reason that it has evolved within the short(relatively speaking) history of the technology industry. As previously mentioned, it has gone from a general term for a group of bits to an exact amount, namely eight. And, since it now has that precise definition, it can be combined with other words to mean different precise amounts of bits. A gigabyte, for example, is 1,073,741,824 bytes, or 1 billion, depending on whether you go by the digital or analog value of the word. But the interesting thing is the prefix: Giga actually means giant, not billion or 9 (one billion is ten to the 9th power) or anything to do with the actual number. Similarly, Mega, which is used for 1 million, means "great", Tera, for 1 trillion again has nothing to do with the number, but rather means "monster." Yet the "Kilo" in Kilobyte, which is a term for 1000 bytes (or 1024), does actually mean 1000.
The terminology of the computer industry is in some ways indicative of the industry itself. It is rapidly changing, so there are terms that have evolved in usage since they were coined or were given their original technology-related connotation, like byte. And there are humorous words, in the form of "bug" and again byte to name a few. Some other terms have changed little from their normal English usage, such as tablet, revealing the desire of computer engineers and marketers to make technology relatable to those who are not enmeshed in the culture and industry. Yet other words are completely new, showing the drastic changes to our culture, consciousness and even vocabulary stemming from technology, and the human predilection for innovation.
This was originally an essay I wrote for a college English class, and then I reposted it on my blog here. If you liked it, I'd love to hear feedback, or you can take a look at my site for more. Thanks for reading!
Sources after the break<!-- extended entry -->
Technology Dictionary. Art Branch Incorporated
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 9th ed. 1989.
Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper.
Huggins, James S. “Where Did Kilo, Mega, Giga and All Those Other Prefixes Come From?”
James S. Huggins’ Refrigerator Door.
Tech Terms. Tech Terms. 11 March, 2011. Web. 9 October, 2011.