Mice, Torrents, and Trolls, Oh My!: Computing Lingo Origin Stories

You probably don’t think too much about your computer mouse, or any of the other computer-related gizmos hanging around the house. But, computer lingo almost always has a backstory. And, you won’t believe the etymology of some of this stuff.


You know the company. You use its search engine every day. But, did you know that the origin of the company’s name is actually a misspelling of the word “googol?” As in, the number? It’s true. When the company was first formed, it was assumed that this would be the amount of information it would be able to index and provide to users.


No one really knows how the word “mouse” came to be. But the best guess from its inventor, Douglas Engelbart, is that the device looked kind of like a mouse and the cord looked like its tail.


The word “bug” has been used since the time of Thomas Edison to describe some kind of malfunction. But, it was Grace Hooper that coined the term for computers. She was working on figuring out the cause of a glitch in the computer she was working on. She eventually discovered it – it was a moth trapped in a relay.


Bit is short for “binary digit” and it’s the basic building block of computing.


If you’ve ever seen the Monty Python sketch, you’ll understand where this term comes from. Yes, it’s true. It was born in chat rooms, and refers to something that is excessive and unwanted. It also refers to something that is annoying – sort of like an eatery full of Vikings singing “spam! spam! spam! spam! spam!” – you get the idea. The official explanation given by the ad industry is that it’s an acronym started in the 1980s for “Sales Promotion and Marketing,” but we know better.


Originally, hackers weren’t bad people. In fact, the term simply referred to someone who was clever or talented with electronics in general. However, over time, the meaning changed and it came to be synonymous with criminals breaking into computers and gaining unauthorized access to data.


P2P” refers to “peer-to-peer” and is a technology that was born in the 1960s when ARPANET was first conceived as a network that would share files between U.S. research facilities. This technology was then eventually refined into USENET in 1979. Today, apps like the Vuze bittorrent client give you precise control over file sharing and distribution. What’s old is new again.


The term “firewall” comes right out of a history book. It’s actually hundreds of years old and refers to a wall that was constructed with the purpose of containing fires. The computer version has a similar purpose. It protects you from the spread of harmful viruses and malware.


They’re everywhere these days, but where did they come from? Believe it or not, the word and concept comes from a 1976 book called The Selfish Gene, written by scientist (and atheist) Richard Dawkins. He wanted a word that would describe the act of cultural imitation. It’s easy to see how it was eventually hijacked and popularized on the web – clue is in the name.

Jason Boger loves tinkering with technology. Whether trying out new software, rebuilding a computer from scraps, or helping others set up new systems, he loves talking about all things tech.

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