Gallery: The surprising and strange origins of 10 common tech terms
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What's in a name?
“Why in the world do they call it _______?” It’s a common question asked in and out of tech circles. Strange names like Bluetooth, Google, Wiki, and others frequently cause head scratching rumination and the answers are often just as strange as the names.
You may be familiar with a few of the origin stories behind these tech terms–hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised with most.
Lots of people think they know where the term debugging came from–Grace Hopper discovered a moth in the Harvard Mark II that caused it to break down. While Admiral Hopper may be responsible for the popularization of the term she isn’t the one who started it–in fact it goes back decades before she taped a moth to a notebook page.
Thomas Edison even used it in a 1878 letter, though the likely origin is even older than that: The Middle English word bugge was commonly used to refer to gremlins and monsters and it has probably stuck around ever since then.
Wikipedia might be the most popular wiki on the web, but it isn’t the first: That honor belongs to WikiWikiWeb. It still exists as a user-editable repository, just like Wikipedia, but is geared toward programmers and code.
The term Wiki is a shortening of Wiki-Wiki, the name of the shuttle that took designer Ward Cunningham to his hotel from the Honolulu airport on a vacation. Wiki-Wiki is a Hawaiian term for very fast, which Cunningham thought was a good name for his new platform. The rest is computer history.
Another in a long line of tech-related “backronyms,” Daemon was not initially a shortening of Disk And Execution MONitor. It comes from MIT’s Project MAC (yet another backronym), one of the first AI research groups.
A physics thought experiment, Maxwell’s Demon, involves a demon that constantly operates invisibly, sorting molecules and theoretically violating the second law of thermodynamics.
The Daemons that exist in your computer do similar work, except they don’t violate any immutable laws of physics. Rather, they keep things running properly in the background invisibly to you, the user.
There are a lot of “tails” surrounding the origin of the name mouse for this universal computer accessory, but if we take the word of its creator Douglas Engelbart they’re all rubbish. “I don’t know why we call it a mouse … It started that way, and we never did change it,” he said during a presentation demoing the product in 1967.
Regardless of what he says the stories continue to swirl. Other sources say Engelbart stands by his “who knows where it came from” line, but added they thought the cord looked like a mouse. Yet another version of the mouse’s origin story says it was named such because the onscreen pointer was called a CAT, though there’s no actual documentation available to support that claim.
The naming of the mouse will just have to go down as one of history’s great mysteries. Right up there with Stonehenge.
Who hasn’t wondered where the word dongle came from? No one quite knows, though there are some good theories. The OED says dongle was probably just an arbitrary made-up term–not the most satisfactory explanation.
Another reasonable explanation is that it’s a corruption of the word dangle. Plenty of dongles dangle, which makes this one more credible than the urban legend that dongles were named for their creator, Don Gall (check out page 149 of that linked PDF for a vintage ad and the likely origin.)
There are a number of possible reasons, all of them a combination of absurd, delightful, and somewhat plausible.