The Origin of Computer Terms

Let me take you down the memory lane for an instance to quote an example. Do you remember the lesson on Charles Darwin and his book, “The Origin of Species?” Back in school, the story of evolution filled us with awe.  Ideally, everything has an origin as we do – the things we use, the languages, and the words we speak. Ever wondered how the words or vocabulary that we use in our day-to-day life came into being?

Not sure about you, but I always like looking up the origin of the words every time I make a visit to the dictionary. Did you know that the study of words is called etymology? The word etymology also has an etymology.

It comes from the Old French word ethimologie and the Latin etymologia, both of which, in turn, come from the Greek etymologia, from etymon, for “true sense,” and logos, word. Interesting isn’t it. Wondering why all this discussion about the origin of words? That’s because we recently had a session on the origin of words, thanks to Pritam and Amit.

The continuous learning session that I am talking about was not about random words. In fact, like the theory of evolution, it was about how some selected computer terms came into existence. Though a continuous learning session, there was no activity. We are going through the presentation phase now. We make teams of two and give impromptu presentations of certain topics. Pritam and Amit happened to pick up the presentation on the etymology of computer terms.

Of course, if were pick up computer terminologies, there are so many to pick up. Pritam and Amit opted to choose a few common or rather familiar ones from this list. So here is what was covered in the session:


Trojan as a word is not at all endearing. This fearsome computer term has Greek queen, Helen of Troy, to thank for its origin. Yes, the same Greek classical myth where the Greeks left the wooden horse for Trojans as a gift. Trojan overjoyed at the departure of the Greeks, brought the wooden horse inside the gates of Troy. Little did they know that the innocent-looking wooden horse hid the best of Greek warriors who had devised this plan as a means to get inside Troy’s gates.

Similarly, a Trojan in computer terms is a malicious program disguised as legitimate software. It appears innocuous but it actually a vehicle for bypassing security. As soon as it bypasses the computer’s security, it give remote access of the computer to the Trojan’s owner.


All of us, at some time or the other, have been bombarded with the SPAM emails. Or we often worry about our company’s marketing emails ending up as SPAM. They are that unwanted repeated messages that come from bulk emailing by the sender. The term SPAM comes from the Monty Python SPAM sketch, set in a café where everything on the café’s menu includes SPAM luncheon meat. It was first televised in 1970.

It tells the story of two customers – lowered by wires – into the greasy spoon café. They try to order breakfast from a menu that includes SPAM in almost every dish. As the waitress recites the Spam-filled menu, a chorus of Viking patrons drown out all conversations with a song, repeating “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam… Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!”

After World War II the UK imported excessive canned meat products. The British public grew tired of it and hence the reference to the SPAM emails.


Not to be mistaken with the sugary baked treats, cookies are a packet of information that travels between a browser and the webserver. Having said that, the cookies in computer terminology derives its origin from the web browser programmer Lou Montulli from the term “magic cookies” used by Unix programmers who got it from the fortune cookie, a cookie with a message embedded in them. Apt isn’t it?


Another dreaded word that can send shivers up your spine. Virus, is in fact, a piece of program code that spreads by making copies of itself (exactly like the viruses that invade the human body). It was first used by Fred Cohen in his 1984 paper – Computer Viruses Theory and Experiments. Though he used the word, he credited Len Adleman with coining it. Though it was the first time that the word was academically used, it was common used long before that. In the mid-1970s, a reference was found in the science fiction novel by David Gerrorld (when H.A.R.L.I.E was One).It describes one fictional computer program called VIRUs that worked just like a virus and had a counter program called ANTIBODY).

Did you know that Von Neumann designed the self-reproducing computer program that is considered to the world’s first virus? The presentation had interesting stories behind the origin of these words.

As the session ended, we realized that it was an uneasy choice of computer terminologies. So Amit and Pritam also shared some tips to keep away from these unwelcome visitors to our computers. One of these was to avoid sites that are not secured – the ones that start with http instead of https. They also asked us to recheck the permission we grant when we visit any website. It would be wise to choose the permission instead of allowing the website to set permissions. Who knew these common computer terms had so many stories behind them. I am sure if we set out understand the origin of all computer terms it would take years to unravel their origins and the stories behind them. Thank you, Pritam and Amit for this insight into these common computer terms and their terminologies! The door to continuous learning is always open (and so the door to continuous teaching). More lessons would always be welcome.

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