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.

Cyberspace

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.

Robot

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”.

Freelance

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.

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8 Insightful Bits in response to “The Origin Of Words”

  1. I love this part from cyberspace “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators”

    I think of cyberspace as a vast technological wonder so to have it viewed as an hallucination kind of got me thinking this morning.

  2. Your William Gibson reference caught my eye. I just read Neuromancer at the end of last year and thought it was one of the great surreal/sci-fi book ever written. But I didn’t know the word cyberspace came from him…I thought he used the word because it has always existed. Thanks for the info!

  3. What??! Tara and I have been emailing back and forth about a similar topic! This is so weird! We have been discussing slang words we use in different parts of the world. It was such an interesting discussion that we are trying to come up with a way to relate it to design so she can write an article about it.

    In a class I had to take in school, Emerging Technologies, we studied the evolution of technology. They had “robots” all the way back in ancient Greece, although they were called automata. I think the funniest one is from the 1700′s, de Vaucanson’s Duck. We also had to read some pretty silly and outrageous theories on the meanings “cyberspace” and the internet in our world.

    I never thought about the origin of freelance before, but it makes perfect sense!

    Have you ever heard of Webopedia? I always use it when I need to know a tech term meaning because sometimes they are not official words or they have too many meanings outside of tech-speak that you can’t find the one you’re looking for. It’s how I learned the difference between disk and disc, URI and URL, and all sorts of other interesting things.

  4. Vivien

    Joey, I hope your cyberspace hallucinations didn’t last till evening :-)
    I also liked this part of the quote: “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind”.

    Thanks for your comment, Gloria. I’ve read many sci-fi books during my teenage and university years, but I’m not sure if I read Neuromancer. I’ll try getting this book soon.

    Lauren, what can I say – great minds think alike? :-) Yes, I’ve used Webopedia on different occasions, but I usually always search Google first – it’s easier to judge by the search results which one covers the essential data
    Your Emerging Technologies class sounds like fun. Perhaps you can share some stuff that you’ve learned there with us in another guest appearance on Inspiration Bit? :-)

  5. Ooo, there’s an idea! Many of the things we talked about were pretty lame, but the class overall was a really good exercise in thinking on your toes. Our exams were practical (i.e. not multiple choice, essay or T/F), and we had 4 hours to take a project from concept to completion. It was quite a challenge! It was really good practice, though. Hehe, the logos for Headgear on my website were actually from the final exam! I’ll have to look over my notes and see if there is anything worth sharing.

  6. Vivien, I’ll take 2 nybbles over a byte any day. Er, wait…

  7. Vivien

    Lauren, I’m glad you liked my idea for your next guest post. Look forward to it. Looks like you had lots of fun coming up with those logos for Headgear.

    Ronald, glad you clarified the confusion yourself :-)

  8. The term “hoodlum” also has an interesting story – at least as it was told to me.

    In the Bay Area (SF) during the gold rush Irish police officers were dealing with outlaws and they would shout “huddle them” ie: get them close together so they could rope them up.

    But with their thick accents and repeating the phrase “huddle them, huddle them” people started referring to them as “hoodlums.”

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach programming, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on