From 'browser' to 'mouse', did you know the origins of these computer-related terms?

The term “computer” denotes “a programmable digital electronic device that performs mathematical or logical operations"

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 25 Jan 2024, 8:52 PM

Language evolves over time, with new words emerging and the meanings of existing ones undergoing alterations. Neologisms can be invented, old words that have fallen out of use can be resurrected, existing words can be imbued with new connotations, and loan-words can be employed to denote new items. And so it is with the ever-progressing realms of computer and information technology, which have brought with them their own terminology.

The term “computer” denotes “a programmable digital electronic device that performs mathematical or logical operations”. Its origin can be traced back to the Latin word computare, which means “to calculate, count, sum up or think together”. The English language has incorporated the word “compute”, in the sense of “to calculate”, into its lexicon for centuries. The earliest documented use of the term “computer” goes as far back as 1613, when English poet Richard Brathwaite published Yong Mans Gleanings, using “computer” to refer to an individual engaged in professional calculations. This usage endured until the mid-20th century when British mechanical engineer Charles Babbage conceived the idea of a programmable computing device.

Similar to many newly-coined words that gain wide recognition, is the term “digerati” — denoting “people highly skilled in the processing and manipulation of digital information; scholarly techno-nerds” — made its initial debut without any detailed explanation, in the business section of the New York Times. The word itself possesses components that link it to both the realm of computers and that of elite expertise. The initial syllable of “digerati” aligns with the first syllable of “digital”, a versatile term used to describe computer technology, while its concluding portion is a play on “literati”, a dignified Latin term adopted in English since 1621 to signify “scholars” or “individuals with a deep proficiency in literature”.

A computer web “browser” assists us in exploring information across a network. In the era before the Internet, we used to peruse libraries and physical stores to find information or specific items. Alternatively, we'd visit such places simply to pass the time while contemplating our desires, much like our current activity of Internet surfing. Centuries ago, people engaged in the act of browsing amidst the open countryside and woodlands, seeking out shoots, leaves, and twigs to provide sustenance for animals during the winter season. The term “browser” is derived from the verb “browse”, which itself originated from the Anglo-French term brouts, signifying “sprouts”.

Originally, the term “browse” referred only to foraging until the 19th century. Soon enough, though, the verb “browse” started being used in contexts involving different forms of wandering and searching, such as the exploration of a library or bookstore in search of intellectual nourishment. The act of “browsing” then became a common occurrence in the marketplace, where individuals casually explore items without a serious intention to make purchases. This shift in meaning likely played a role in using “browse” to describe the action of viewing information on a computer, leading to the naming of the tool that facilitates this activity as the “browser”.

The unassuming computer “mouse” began its journey from 1970. It consisted of a wooden shell housing two metal wheels and was created through collaboration between two computer engineers, Douglas Engelbart and Bill English. Engelbart thought it resembled a mouse, particularly due to the cord coming out from its back. However, the design was soon altered to have the cord emerge from the front, for user convenience. An alternative theory suggests that, since in those days the on-screen cursor was referred to as a “CAT”, the mouse was so named since it was chasing the “cat” around the screen.

A computer “file” is “a compilation of data treated as a single unit”. The term can be traced back to the era of handwritten documents, where it signified “an assemblage of papers arranged on a file”. The expression “on a file” denoted the use of a wire or cord for stringing together documents for safekeeping — an age-old practice dating back to the early 16th century. The word “file” was adopted from the French word fil, which translates to “thread”, and this French term, in turn, derived from the Latin word filum, conveying the same meaning. Fortunately, modern computer files don’t have threads or strings attached — except metaphorically!

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