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All Your Semantics Belong to Us

All Your Semantics Belong to Us

Where hacking words is a time honored tradition
author
Robert Wallach
Jun 19, 2018
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Office Space, 1999

In the third installment of I can REST when I’m Alive, I will be discussing some of the interesting (and funny) linguistic twists that exist in the tech world. Having a Publishing background and a hereditary addiction to language, I couldn’t help but analyze my new industries language. I have compiled a list of some of the most intriguing, comedic, and bizarre terms I have run across thus far.

Engineers and Developers

During my early days at Stoplight, it occurred to me that the term Engineer and Developer, when applied to my fellow co-workers, was an interesting turn of phrase. My father is an architect and growing up I often heard these terms tossed around in reference to construction.

At the onset it felt off, as if it was applied without much thought, but after spending time with my fellow engineers and developers, I discovered some interesting similarities.

  • While a Structural Engineer works with physical objects, a Software Engineer works in the abstract and metaphysical. A Software Engineer may no longer have to deal with the physics of their product, but they still work in an environment governed by strict rules that need to be navigated.

Computer Engineers don’t wear yellow hats or point at things with rolled up blueprintsComputer Engineers don’t wear yellow hats or point at things with rolled up blueprints

  • Land Developers, similarly, are involved in the modification of existing structures or the creation of new ones. Web Developers have moved on from vacant lots to domains. They take raw, undefined space, and create something new.

The key to these terms was adopting the perception of a domain, local host, or any other undeveloped tech space as a vacant lot of sorts, where Developers and Engineers can plan and create.

The Escape Key

In the end, Shift and Delete brought him downIn the end, Shift and Delete brought him down

Described as a button that “reminds the machine it has a human master,” the escape key has been hiding out in the top left of your keyboard since 1960. Created by Bob Bemer, an IBM employee, the escape key was originally used to help him switch between different kinds of code.

Now it functions as an interrupter, a last resort for anyone wanting to get a computers attention to tell it to stop whatever it is doing and take you somewhere safe.

Hot Key

No longer lukewarm. The McDonalds coffee cup of keysNo longer lukewarm. The McDonalds coffee cup of keys

Java/JavaScript

Gears sold separatelyGears sold separately

Evidently the creators of one of the most widely used coding languages in the world decided to dedicate their creation to coffee. Apparently caffeine was to spot on. Also functions as an advisory: drink coffee while using.

Bug

Commonly attributed to Grace Hopper’s finding of an actual moth while working on Harvard University’s Mark II calculator in 1945, this term is actually much older. Its use goes back to Edison’s time as a form of slang which most likely derives itself from Bugaboo, Bugbear, and Boogeyman. Maybe that will make you think twice before trying to squash a bug…it may be more appropriate to try to exorcise the bug or release it. Perhaps it is haunting your code for past transgressions.

Glitch

FailFail

Some attribute this little gem to the US Air Force for failed rocket experiments in 1965. Why glitch? Because they literally could not think of another word to explain an unexpected error that no one has figured out yet.

Hello World

Every developer I have spoken to knows this term, but what does it really mean. The term comes from the 1973 book “A Tutorial Introduction to the Programming Language B” by Brian Kernighan. The author, while sketchy on the details, believes the idea behind the phrase came from a comic strip in which a chick hatches from an egg and declares “Hello World.” The term has come to signify a rite of passage for programmers and will ironically be the first statement made by Skynet.

Load/Overload

Like Atlas from Greek Myths and “The Weight” described by The Band. This term refers to the poor machine that is constantly lugging something around.

Sandbox

More Yellow Hats and Blueprints NeededMore Yellow Hats and Blueprints Needed

Defined as a testing environment for unverified code that removes the risk of harming the operating system or machine. A place where you can play around with new or untested code, this term functions on two levels:

  • As a cordoned off area of a playground often used for creation with easy forms of manipulation and revision ie building a sand castle and/or

  • The aforementioned area with the danger of obscurity allowing for the potential to find unwanted or discarded items (i.e. used band-aids).

Spool

A term referring to the process of Simultaneous Peripheral Operations On-Line. Spooling is essentially the process by which a computer hands off a task to a slower peripheral device. It brings to mind the moment before the stars start shooting past the screen during a science fiction movies “jump” to hyperspace.

  • “The battleship is right on us, let’s jump to hyperspace”

  • “We have to wait for the FTL drive to spool up!”

Daemon

Another term originating from the labs at MIT. Daemon refers to a program that runs in the background without any input from the user. Weirdly enough, this term originates from a thought experiment called Maxwell’s Demon where a “Demon” sorts molecules by pulling a lever that opens a trapdoor. I like to imagine it as a kind of spirit guide for your computer that haunts your computer by spinning up its hard drive when you thought it was asleep. Nightmares from what you forced it to do while it was awake.

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

A video game original, this term came about by a poor translation of a Japanese games dialogue. What does it have to do with computer jargon? Not much other than hilarious.

Trolls

Originally found in Scandinavian folklore, these dim witted insatiable creatures have found their way into pop culture via the internet. Internet trolling generally revolves around the activity of creating an uncomfortable, unsafe, or unsuitable environment through overly critical, inflammatory language used to incite some form of violence whether verbal or otherwise. If confronted by a troll just remember, like the trolls of old, they live in dirty, dark caves, and when exposed to the light, they turn to stone.

Foo bar

This phrases history is actually quite obscure and bizarre. The most common association is with the military phrase FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition) but when you start digging deeper it becomes less and less clear where this phrase came from and how it came to occupy its current meaning. Some historians attribute the term to a comic strip called Smokey Stover, others to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, or even a 70’s video game called Colossal Cave Adventure. Regardless of where it came from it seems to be here to stay and continues to confuse anyone who thinks a little too long about it.

Cruft

Once again, we look back to what must have been the coolest Railroad Club ever, MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club from 1958. They seem to have coined this term in reference to garbage that piled up in their Clubroom. The term had been around for a while but wasn’t written in any publication until then. It now refers to badly designed, unnecessarily complicated, or unwanted code or software.