Did you know that the term ‘spam’ – unsolicited junk emails – derived from the classic Monty Python SPAM sketch?
It turns out that a number of everyday tech terms have surprising origins.
From ‘bug’ to ‘virus’ to ‘cookie’ – the etymologies of these 12 common tech terms are bound to surprise you. How many had you heard of?
Most people have no difficulties understanding why successful tech startups valued at over $1 billion are called ‘unicorns’. Just like the mythical single-horned creatures, these startups are extremely rare. What’s more, given that most ‘unicorn’ startups are overvalued, they arguably never really became unicorns at all. However, it surprises many people to learn that a single person – Aileen Lee – was responsible for coining this now very common tech phrase. Lee was the founder of the seed-stage focused fund Cowboy Ventures and decided that startups with mythical rarity deserved a fitting name.
#2. The Internet of Things
The idea that a vast number of everyday items can communicate via Wi-Fi seems well suited to being described as the ‘internet of things’. After all, they are ‘things’ that are online, right? You may have at home, for instance, a fridge freezer that can tell your Amazon Echo when to order more milk. Or you may have the latest version of Alexia that can turn all of your Echo devices into intercoms.
So who invented this term?
In fact, a British scientist and author by the name of Kevin Ashton was responsible for coining this term. While working to improve supply chain communication systems, Ashton coined the term ‘internet of things’ all the way back in 1999. Almost two decades later, this idea has become one of the hottest disruptive tech trends.
What type of cookie has an embedded message?
A fortune cookie!
Although most people incorrectly assume that fortune cookies are Chinese in origin (they’re actually an American invention), the idea of having an embedded message inside a package was adopted by Unix programmers who started using the term “magic cookie” to describe parts of their code. The term ‘cookie’ as it relates to web servers was coined by Lou Montullli, a web browser programmer.
Unless you’ve just woken up and started reading this, the chances are excellent that you’ve seen several memes online in the past couple of hours. Whether you like Facebook, Imgur or Twitter, memes are as ubiquitous and inescapable as LinkedIn connection requests. You’ve likely chuckled at a few, shared some and maybe even created some of your own. But have you ever wondered where this word came from?
It was actually introduced in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, in his book The Selfish Gene. The word ‘meme’ was used by Dawkins to outline the process through which trends become popularized. The next time you share a meme, you’re effectively helping this come true!
#5. Open Source
Of late, you’ve probably read about how Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency is great because it is ‘open source’, but where did this phrase come from? Anything that is open source can be shared and worked on by anyone. This term was coined in 1998 by a scientist called Christine Peterson who used it to describe aspects of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.
Phishing – the process by which criminals try to ‘fish’ information such as passwords from a ‘sea’ of unsuspecting internet users is one of those everyday terms that instantly makes sense to people. As a straightforward play on the word ‘fishing’, it’s easily understood. However, would it surprise you to learn that this term was first coined hackers themselves? In 1996, a group of hackers stole AOL passwords and accounts and in doing so, coined this term.
Almost all of us have described a tech problem as a ‘bug’ at some point or other. Surprisingly, this term dates back to Thomas Edison who used it to refer to issues related to the development of the telephone in 1878.
If you’ve ever had to boot or reboot a computer, have you stopped to wonder what the process has to do with footwear? Intriguingly, it is derived from the phrase of unknown origin - "to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps".
Well, the central paradox in computing is that code cannot be run until it is loaded but computers need to run code before they can load anything into memory. Therefore ‘booting’ is a metaphor for the self-initiating process of turning on a computer and starting this self-sustaining process. Pretty clever, right?
Even people who have never written or read a blog post before instinctive understand that writing a blog is like keeping a ship’s log book. Surely that’s where the word must have come from, right?
Would you be surprised to know that the term was coined by one programmer in 1999?
Back in 1997, Jorn Barger started ‘logging the web’ by sharing links with his readers and calling it a ‘WebLog’. Two years later, Peter Merholz, a programmer, shortened this to simply ‘blog’ and a whole new culture of ‘Read-Write-Publish’ was born. Debatably, this was one of the factors that ended the era of passive net consumption known as Web 1.0 and ushered in the new interactive era of Web 2.0.
If you’ve ever booked a hotel via TripAdvisor then it may surprise you that to learn that you’ve done something that just 12 years ago didn’t even have a name. Crowdsourcing was coined in 2006 by a Wired writer, Jeff Howe.
If you’ve scrolled down this far you’ve likely had a much easier time thanks to a mouse. According to the Computer History Museum, this wonderful little device was created in 1961 by Doug Engelbart, a Stanford engineer. The name likely came from similarities in its appearance to a rodent, although Engelbart is on the record as not being able to remember.
Unlike other terms on this list, no one individual can be credited with coining this term. However, Brad Templeton attributes this term to a Monty Python sketch where a group of Vikings start chanting ‘SPAM!’ unrelentingly. Thanks to this sketch, SPAM – tins of pork and ham that were popular in Britain during the Second World War – became synonymous with repetition and this was later repurposed to describe unsolicited junk email that clogs up people’s inboxes.