|Every trade is entitled to its linguistic
subset. The speedy evolution of computer technology affords an
opportunity to trace the etymology of some words. It provides a peek at
the random forces that shape the destiny of words. Here are a few
One layer of ferrite cores. Each store one bit of
Fast memory was made of tiny ferrite rings,
known as 'cores'. It might have become ring storage but it
didn't. When these works of art were replaced by silicon chips we
continued to refer to it as core storage because that it what it was. It
was the data store for the processor, right at the heart of the
computer's processing power.
|Random Access Memory
Then the marketing men stepped in and core storage
became random access memory or RAM. Core storage allowed data to be
accessed at random, rather than waiting for the right place in a data
tape or a set of cards to be read. But computer disks already allowed
random access. Perhaps RAM sounded more forceful, more manly. You could
pay a premium to increase the size of your RAM. It was something you
could boast about to friends and colleagues. So core storage vanished
and was replaced with RAM.
Each core has 4 wires threaded through it.
|The Floppy Disk
Another word with a sensible origin is the floppy disk.
Somehow this one escaped the marketing people. IBM engineers invented a
revolutionary disk they could carry from machine to machine to sort out
technical problems. This was at a time when computers inhabited a
rarefied atmosphere in a special room, served by their acolytes.
|The pioneers were a happy bunch who gave their
computers names like Apple, Pet and Apricot. There were no marketing men
on hand to stop the geeks naming their device the floppy disk. Senior
management was so unimpressed with this toy that they did not even
bother to cover it with proper patent protection.
|Soon the computer world was producing millions of floppy
disk drives. The trouble is, technology moved on. The floppy stiffened
and became the rigid 3 1/2 inch disk. But it remained 'the floppy
drive'. Here is a small irony. The primary purpose of the floppy drive
on most computers is once again for just the sort of emergency
anticipated by its original designers. It was never intended as a
primary storage device. It was only intended for emergencies. When
did you last update your recovery disks to start your computer from
floppy if it will not boot from the hard disk?
|The Winchester Disk turns into the Hard
IBM was however, on the ball when their laboratory at
Winchester produced a disk sealed in a dust-free atmosphere on which
undreamed of quantities of data could be stored. The world was presented
with the Winchester disk. For a few years every respectable machine
packed a 'Winchester' but just as suddenly, it vanished. The device
remained but it became a 'hard drive' presumably to distinguish it
from the floppy.
|It is difficult to decide who bears the
this dumbing-down of terminology, but the prime suspect must be the copy
writer. There was a time, less than a decade ago, when computers were on
sale with just one or 2 floppy drives. The temptation to subliminally
shame males into opting for hard rather than floppy must have been
The gender orientation of advertising can also be
detected in the way the screen is measured. You might deduce that a
14 inch screen gives you a display in which 14 inches features. It is
not just that the figure quoted is for the diagonal dimension but the
ruler used was bent to measure the bit of the screen hidden by the case.
This is plain and simple exaggeration.
|Life became tricky when flat screens arrived as they lack
the bent and blank bits so they just fiddled with the rules to add a
couple of inches to the dimensions. Out there in the market place they
just decided it was OK to lie. Whoever bothers to measure their display
|Whoever 'they' are, they don't always get it wrong.
Binary Digit or BIT survived. The word pixel seamlessly fused the words
picture and element to describe the little dots that compose the words
and images on your screen. Happily there was a poet on hand to change
the C to an X, or we might have had the rather harsh picel. But even a
good sound does not guarantee adoption.
|Measuring a Computer's Performance
A sensible measure of a computer's performance is the
number of instructions it can process in a given time. MIPS, or
millions of instructions per second, would have been a good measure. Instead the
speed of the computer's clock became an indication of the power of a
processor. It's like measuring the load-carrying capacity of a motor
vehicle by the speed at which the engine can spin. Shame about the MIPS.
|With the benefit of hindsight a pattern might possibly
emerge. The language of computers has felt as alive and adolescent as
the industry itself. Like every teenager, it is full of energy when
the subject is of interest but somewhat lacking in any sense of