We use 21st century tech terms like hashtag, stream and mouse with casual indifference, but how did these words get to be so commonplace in our everyday vernacular? We know the origins of Superman (kryptonite), Spider Man (radioactive spider), and Batman (rich boy’s revenge) but not “podcast”, “spam”, or even “hacker”. So I looked at 21 common tech terms that have been downloaded into our collective hardware and decoded them.
The 10th century King Harald Gormsson is known for uniting all of Scandinavia — and having one gnarly tooth so rotten, it looked blue. Hence he earned the nickname “Bluetooth”. His kitschy moniker and ability to bond nations inspired Jim Kardach, a software developer from Intel, to pitch “Bluetooth” as the name for a single wireless standard that Intel, Ericsson, Nokia and IBM were developing together in 1997.
The name wasn’t a huge hit, but since all the other names they were coming up with were even worse (i.e. “Flirt”), it was used as a code name or placeholder for the project. All four companies finally agreed on PAN (personal area networking) as the name. But PAN was quickly panned due to SEO issues, and the product was released as Bluetooth out of pure desperation. The public, however, loved the name and Bluetooth ultimately conquered — just like the king.
Logically, the word is a hybrid of the words “pod” — from iPod — and “broadcast”. The term “podcasting” was merely a suggested term for the new technology in an article written by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley in 2004, along with the other contenders like “audioblogging” and “GuerillaMedia”. But due to the popularity of the iPod, which was released only three years earlier in 2001, “podcast” had an appealing snap that that stuck.
Spam for years was known as canned mystery meat worthy of mockery. So much so, that Monty Python did a sketch about it in which the word spam was repeated over and over by a waitress, customers, and even a group of Vikings. Many Monty Python fans were also early MUD, Prodigy, and AOL chatroom frequenters who used the word “spam” to refer to people who created macros to say the same thing over and over again, clogging up chatrooms with their repeated nonsense. So, when repetitive masses of unwanted email began circulating in the early ’90s, people familiar with the interwebs began dubbing it spam, and the popularity of the term soared like processed meat at a grade school food fight.
The term “newbie”, was used in the military during the Vietnam War for new recruits, and since has become a popular slang term for a novice. Computer programmers adopted the term in the 90s with the emergence of l337speak and gave it a techy tweak, the variant “n00b”, spelled with two zeros instead of Os.
Rooted in 17th century Scandinavian folklore, a troll once characterised an antisocial, quarrelsome, and slow-witted creature that was bothersome to humans. End of story, right? Nope. The word troll actually derives from the verb “trolling,” a fishing technique in which you slowly drag a baited hook from a moving boat.
Many believe the birth of online “trolling” was on alt.folklore.urban, or AFU, when veterans would distinguish themselves from newer users by baiting them with topics that had previously been discussed ad nauseam. Newbies would take the bait and naively reply, exposing their uncool n00b ways. In the late ’90s, however, the site became so highly trafficked that trolling was rendered a nuisance, giving the modern tech term once more a negative connotation. The meaning today now more closely resembles its true Norse roots, an idiot looking to pick a fight.
If you find Google to be a calculating corporation, you’re not far off. The name “Google” is actually a play on the mathematical term “googol”, a number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. The name acts as a metaphor for founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s mission to organise a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.
The word “hack” was just a verb when it entered the English vernacular in 1200, meaning a rough cut or heavy blows. In the past few years it also came to refer to a clever trick, short cut or “life hack”. But somewhere in-between, it developed another meaning, “to use a computer to gain unauthorised access to data in a system.”
The word’s context of messing with machinery didn’t originate in the mid-1990s when Angelina Jolie was a fresh-faced rollerblading rebel with a pixie cut, but rather at MIT in 1955 where the notes of a Tech Model Railroad Club state that “Mr Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”
Then in 1975, the word “hacker” appeared in The Jargon File, a glossary for computer programmers, with eight definitions. The last, and only negative entry, stated that a hacker was, “A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around.” Of course, this definition was the most popular amongst the media and in 1990, when The New York Times used it three times in an article about Kevin Poulson (aka Dark Dante) and Robert Tappan Morris (creator of the Morris Worm) it’s negative connotation as a digital trespasser was coded into our lexicon.
LOL, an acronym for “laugh out loud”, was born during the early days of the web on Usenet. Its positive and affirming nature was necessary during the early days of online communication, injecting a sense of humanity into cold, hard text. Lulz is the bastard love child LOL had with a deck of card’s Joker during a wild night in Tijuana. Lulz is laughter, but dark laughter that wants you to consider hypocrisy and injustice by shoving it in your face, often with strange pranks.
Lulz is the central philosophy of the online group Anonymous, which was born in 2003 on 4chan.org’s “anything goes” section known as the /b/ board, which can be regarded as the ultra-NSFW id of the internet. The feral, ironic, and aggressive nature of lulz has led to Anonymous hacking into the online kid’s game Habbo Hotel and blocking the game’s virtual pool with black avatars brimming with physical racial stereotypes and asserting the “Pool is closed due to AIDS” as a protest against Habbo’s administrators Anonymous perceived to be racist. Lol?
IRL, which acts as an acronym for “In Real Life”, was used in the early days of the interwebs as a way for people to defensively distinguish themselves from their online personas, (i.e. “If you knew me IRL you would know that I’d never really suggestively touch a Tickle Me Elmo, though my handle is FondleMeElmo.”) Interestingly, Furry fandom, or those who find enjoyment in dressing up in full-suited animal costumes, was the first group to blur the line between their internet personas and offline lives in the late ’90s. These individuals felt they could be more themselves online — as a fox or hyena avatar that had some of their physical attributes — than they could offline, looking the way they did in their everyday lives. This makes them, in a way, pioneers of the very popular modern practice of creating a social media persona.
Dox derives from “Docs” or “documents”, and refers to the act of finding an anonymous internet character (like say, RicoSAUVE69), and digging up their formal documents that reveal their true, IRL, identity.
When we used to think of the word “stream” we thought of a narrow river or a continuous flow. Now when we think of “stream” we think Netflix, which provides us with a method of transmitting or receiving data over a steady, continuous flow, hence the name. The first use of streaming as a verb was back in 20s, when a system for the transmission and distribution of signals over electrical lines became the basis for what later evolved into elevator music, which would stream a continuous soundtrack to hell to commercial customers without the use of radio. So, think of Muzak as the original Pandora.
You wouldn’t think a service that values succinct, 140-character expression would embrace an 11-character word like “twittering” to describe its main function. But when Twitter first launched in July 2006, “twittering” was the verb the company used to describe the act of writing on Twitter. The verb along with the phrase “Post a Twitter Update”, (that has 21 space-killing characters!) felt clunky, especially to software developer Craig Hockenberry. His frustration led to the invention of Twitterific, a Twitter app that offered a different user experience.
One of Hockenberry’s goals with Twitterific was to hatch up a few one-syllable nouns and verbs for the app, including the word “twit” instead of “twittering” in 2007. Sure, twit still felt awkward, but, hey at least it was only four characters long. When Twitter developer Blaine Cook noticed “twit” being used on Twitterific, he suggested the word “tweet” to Hockenberry instead, and Twitterific embraced it quicker than a scandal trends on Twitter. Twitter, however, didn’t adopt the term “tweet” until June 2008.
Back in the day, the “#” symbol was only known as a pound sign. Or number sign as in “#1 Mum!” or “Lemme get yo #” if you were trying to be slick on a Nokia flip-phone in 2003. But that’s in the US In the UK, a pound sign refers to their currency, the pound, or £. So, calling a symbol that organises groups and aids in searches on Twitter, which has international reach, a pound sign could create a problem. Outside the US, the pound sign was called the hash sign, and being that the word “hashtag” doesn’t really refer to the symbol “#” itself but the symbol and the word that proceeds it (or the tag), using the term hashtag makes perfect sense.
As you might assume, the phrase “404 Not Found/Error” is merely code. When communicating via HTTP, a server is required to respond to a request — like you typing OfficeSuppliesForGuys.com into a browser — with a numeric response, or a code (404), and an optional human-readable reason phrase (“Not Found”). In the code 404, the first digit, 4, indicates a client error, such as a mistyped URL (i.e. OrificeSuppliesForGuys.com.) The next two digits, “04” indicate the specific error encountered, which is why that site wasn’t found.
The word emoji comes from the Japanese characters 絵 (e = picture) 文 (mo = writing) 字 (ji = character). A Japanese man named Shigetaka Kurita invented the concept in 1999 and it consisted of simple, rudimentary symbols like: :). Not m/. And definitely not anything close to an overly eroticised animated eggplant that could help clarify the tone of text.
Kurita actually invented the first 250 emoji as we now know them today, but because his former company, Docomo, wasn’t able to obtain a copyright for his invention, Apple stole the idea and went buck wild. Now you can download tons of emoji such as kissy face, praying hands, and a tiny, animated soft-serve yogurt pile of poo.
In 1950, Douglas C. Engelbart, a 25-year-old whippersnapper was about to be married — and about to invent a device that would revolutionise computers. When Engelbart entered the computing world, computers were the size of a room and could only be accessed by one person at a time. It was convoluted and Engelbart’s frustrations led to the creation of the mouse, which he debuted during what is dubbed “the mother of all demos” in 1968 at a computing conference in San Francisco, and went mainstream a couple decades later with the famous Macintosh personal computer. The name “mouse” for the device came to be because the term CAT was used to describe the cursor on a screen and it seemed like the cursor was chasing the tailed desktop device.
Used by software swashbucklers to describe a cracked game or application made available for free over the internet (copyrights, be damned!), “warez” is simply a play on the word “wares”, and should be pronounced the same way. Not like “Juárez” the city in Mexico.
There is proof that Thomas Edison used the word “bug” in his notebooks to describe a malfunctioning system. That’s all well and good, but computers weren’t around back in Edison’s day. Another theory — though sometimes disputed — is that in 1947, Grace Hopper, a pioneer of computer programming was working on the Harvard Mark II computer when work was suspended due to the presence of a moth stuck in the relay. When she remarked they were “debugging” the system to get it started again, the term “bug” in regards to computer glitches was born. The moth she found can still be seen on display in the Smithsonian Museum.
Cookies are used to store a user’s information — like a username and password — and transmit this information between a website and a browser. For instance, when you click that “Remember me” button, that’s a cookie. The fact that it’s a pretty sweet treat that your info just pops up when logging into Instagram is not the reason it’s called a cookie, though. The term cookie is actually a comparison to a fortune cookie. Early programmers thought there was a pretty strong similarity between a program that saves information within its code and the Chinese takeout staple that saves fortunes within its stale walls.
A Wiki, like Wikipedia, is a group of interconnected sites built from user engagement. “Wiki wiki” in Hawaiian means “quick”. Wiki’s creator, Ward Cunningham, decided that a wiki would be a quick, simple way to access multiple sites, information, and read about the life of Kelsey Grammar (which is fascinating, wiki it!).
GIF is an acronym for graphic interchange format. Simple. Boring. Not nearly as interesting as any GIF involving a fainting goat. What’s interesting about GIF is its proper pronunciation, which is with a “j” sound not a “g”, like the peanut butter. The originators of GIF at CompuServe in 1987 preferred the soft j sound. But pronouncing it “JIF” (or jIF, as the creators intended) sounds awkward. Like pronouncing mature, “matyuer”. So, be a rebel and pronounce it with a “g”, dammit!