Did you ever wonder who coined a certain phrase, what is the origin of some words we often use but seldom think about how did they become a part of our vocabulary? I was writing my entry for Ronald’s Peeve Week when I stumbled upon a very interesting history on Wikipedia behind a certain word I used in my article. That’s when I realized how fascinated I always get when finding out the origins of words.
Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the book I had when I was little that was filled with many captivating stories behind words and phrases in our vocabulary. I do recall reading there about the origin of the word “hooligan”. As it turns out there was an Irish family by the name of Hooligan, who was infamous for the reckless behaviour, hence everyone else starting telling others – “don’t behave like the Hooligans”. Later on I discovered another similar book in my husband’s extensive book collection – A Hog on Ice, that talks about the “origin and development of the pungent and colorful expressions we all use”, and it quickly became our coffee table book.
I thought about sharing with you the stories behind some of the words that are computer-related.
The word “cyberspace” was coined by William Gibson, a science fiction writer, in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome” and his 1984 novel “Neuromancer”.
He combined the words cybernetics (coined by Norbert Wiener to represent the study of “teleological mechanisms”) and space. Here’s the quote from Neuromancer that describes the word “cyberspace”:
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…
I find Gibson’s comment on the origin of this term even more fascinating:
All I knew about the word “cyberspace” when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.
Looks like Gibson would’ve been a great marketer and a blogger, since he definitely knew how to come up with very memorable and impressive buzzwords.
I first found out the origin of the word “robot” when reading Karel Čapek’s biography page in his extremely hilarious book of short detective stories packed with brilliant bits of humour – “Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket”.
Even though Karel Čapek was the first one who popularized the word “robot” in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1921, it was his brother Josef Čapek who actually invented this term. The root of this word comes from the Czech word “robota”, which means “work” or “forced labor”.
It’s interesting to note that originally the word “freelance” in the XVIII century consisted of two separate words, in XIX century it was accepted only as a noun, and in XX century it was officially recognized as a verb. This term was first coined by none other than Sir Walter Scott in his famous novel Ivanhoe, where he referred to a “medieval mercenary warrior” as Free Lance:
I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.
nibble = nybble
The computing term “nibble” is half of an octet (an 8-bit byte), a four-bit data. Because the term “byte” replicates the “bite” as in the small amount of data a “computer could “bite” at once”, the “nibble” takes it one step further by defining a “half bite”, hence an alternative spelling of this word as “nybble”.
Since a nibble equals to 4 bits, there are 24=16 possible values, thus a nibble is often referred to as a “hex digit” – a single hexadecimal digit.
So, from now on, if I don’t have enough data to present you with 8 or 16 bits of information, I’ll retreat to listing only 4 bits or 1 nibble. Hope you don’t mind, do you?
If you know some other curious words or phrases with an interesting background, I would love to hear about them.