technology 7 Backstories Behind Everyday Technology Terms
Mouse, cookie, spam — all of these words are double agents.
The common terms take on a second meaning when it comes to the tech world. Everyday words are lifted from the dictionary and crafted to have entirely different meanings to represent their computer counterparts.
Then there’s the terminology flip-side, where words like “meme” or “weblog” are completely made up to define new Internet advancements.
Do you ever wonder how those terms came to be? We do. Here are seven backstories behind popular tech terms we constantly use.
What it is: A navigational device used for computers.
Where it came from: No one really knows, not even its inventor, Douglas Engelbart.
“I don’t know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it,” he said, during a 1968 conference where he introduced the creation. In another interview with Super Kids, he said “no one” could remember the origin, but that it “looked like a mouse with a tail, and we all called it that in the lab.”
Roger Bates, a hardware designer who had been working on the mouse at the time, remembers things a bit differently. In the book What the Dormouse Said, he says the cursor on the computer screen used to be called a “CAT,” so it was only natural the cat would chase the mouse.
What it is: A personal website for writing posts and sharing links.
Where it came from: The term is actually a shortened nickname for “weblog.” Coined in 1997 by John Barger, the term referred to his website Robot Wisdom, which “logged his Internet wanderings.” As time progressed, the word was truncated and grew as a popular web pastime.
What it is: A small piece of information stored when you visit a website.
Where it came from: It’s derived from “magic cookies,” an older computing term with essentially the same meaning. Lou Montulli, inventor of the web cookie, explained the word choice in a post on his blog.
“I had heard the term ‘magic cookie’ from an operating systems course from college … I liked the term ‘cookies’ for aesthetic reasons. Cookies was the first thing I came up with and the name stuck.”
There’s no clear definition of where “magic cookies” originated, but theories include a reference to old video games, where players had to gain “magic cookies” in order to advance.
What it is: An unsolicited amount of junk email.
Where it came from: You can thank Monty Python for this. An old sketch from the comedy show featured a diner with Spam in every dish. Soon the characters sang and shouted the word “spam” multiple times. The term caught on in Internet chat rooms, becoming associated with annoying, repetitive stuff you don’t want.
What it is: An idea or action that spreads virally on the Internet.
Where it came from: In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, scientist Richard Dawkins wrote that he wanted a word to describe the act of cultural imitation. He settled on the Greek word “mimeme,” which means “imitated thing,” but shortened it to “meme,” so that it almost rhymed with “gene.” It also resembled the French word “même,” which means “same.”
The term was hijacked and popularized by the Internet, which Dawkins doesn’t mind.
“When anybody talks about something going viral on the Internet, that is exactly what a meme is,” he said in an interview with Wired.
What it is: A computer criminal who forcibly accesses unauthorized data.
Where it came from: Hacking wasn’t always a negative thing. In the early tech days, it meant being clever and talented with electronics, not necessarily just computers. Slowly, a hacker culture was born that cultivated a deep interest in positive tech activity.
In the book Piracy Cultures, the origin of the term came about from the phrase “one who works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software.” Positive hacking still exists, and members of the culture prefer to call malicious hackers “crackers” instead.
What it is: A protective program to defend computers against harmful hackers, worms and viruses.
Where it came from: The term has been around for hundreds of years, and is exactly what it sounds like: a wall designed to protect buildings from a spreading fire. The computer version functions similarly, by protecting technology from the spread of harmful viruses.
By Yohana Desta