Since computers came to the masses, a number of terms have been reinvented. That's fair enough much of the time, though I still have difficulty accepting terms like “hard drive” and “hotspot”. In general, I don't mind names that are amusing or quirky, but if they hide the meaning, that's bad. For example, do you know what the Germans mean by the English word “Handy”? You'll know it immediately if you've been to Germany, but otherwise you probably won't guess.
On this page I'm keeping a list of words that I find misleading or just plain wrong. I'll add to it from time to time; if you have a favourite, please let me know about it.
Previously there were some that are not related to computers, but I've moved them to a companion page.
The dictionary word of the preposition “about” implies a description, and it appears in GUIs to describe programs. This makes a lot of sense: many programs have silly names unrelated to their purpose, like “QuickTime”, “Excel” or “Safari”. You need to be told what they're intended to do. And where better than in a box entitled “About”? Unfortunately, the GUI builders have decided that all the information of importance is the released version of the software, and maybe the names of the wonderful people who wrote it. Would it be that difficult to add a two-liner saying what the program does?
A barcode is a valid term for a particular kind of data representation, though it's not clear to me why it should be written as one word:
Blessing is a religious act, of course, but Apple Computer use it to describe how MacOS X locates the kernel at boot time. The implication is that some attribute of the file or directory (sorry, “folder”) gets set. In fact, it's just an entry in a table:
finderinfo: 3321 => Blessed System Folder is /System/Library/CoreServices
finderinfo: 3321 => OS X blessed folder is /System/Library/CoreServices
kernel="kernel" # /boot sub-directory
bootfile="kernel" # Kernel name
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “deprecate” originally meant “To pray against (evil); to pray for deliverance from; to seek to avert by prayer”. Nowadays it's “To plead earnestly against; to express an earnest wish against (a proceeding); to express earnest disapproval of (a course, plan, purpose, etc.).” But in modern computer terminology “deprecated” means “obsolescent”, a word that appears not to be known in the USA. Somehow this doesn't match, and when I see the word I have this mental image of a software developer in his ivory tower earnestly praying that people will stop using some functionality or software.
Once upon a time photography was done with silver halide emulsions. Light fell on the emulsion and caused minute changes in the structure. Special chemicals, called developers, converted these minute changes into elemental silver, which represented a negative view of the original subject.
Nowadays, of course, we use digital sensors, and the image is stored in digital form. No need for developers. You process the image with software. But clearly many people find this too clinical, so they call some of these transformations “development”. It's not clear to me just which represent “development”, which “exporting”, and which other equally silly terms, but I've noticed a number of people referring to the conversion of raw images to other formats as “development”, while converting, say, a TIFF image to a JPEG image does not seem to qualify.
Electronic mail is frequently abbreviated “e-mail” or “email”; there's nothing wrong with that. But many web designers use the term for something completely different, a web form which generates an e-mail message. These forms tend to have the following characteristics:
What's an eresource, e-resource or eResource? You can guess—indeed you have to. It seems that a number of Australian government institutions use it to mean something like online access to reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias. In particular, the State Library of Victoria uses only that term to link to its online content, as I discovered on 26 June 2012.
Experience is the result of learning, and often of experiments (French “expérience”, an old meaning in English as well). But nowadays many people use the term to mean “impression”, frequently even “first impression”. Consider the following in a discussion on the FreeBSD-current mailing list:
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 2012 19:52:58 -0500
To: freebsd-current Current <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Enhancing the user experience with tcsh
In conf/160689 (http://www.freebsd.org/cgi/query-pr.cgi?pr=160689)
there has been some discussion about changing the default cshrc file.
An experienced user doesn't need a change to the defaults. This is just to make it easier for the inexperienced user. But there's worse: in the draft HTML5 specification you can read:
Clearly this use is based on advertising copy, but why let buzzword merchants determine the course of language evolution? You'd get the impression (or is that “experience”?) that there are no experienced people left in the industry. Maybe you would be right.
Everybody knows what “export” means. The Oxford English Dictionary has (as always) multiple meanings:
But that's an old, worn-out magic word. Nowadays it appears to mean “process with
Optics “Pro” has recently replaced the term “process” with “export”. That gives
me the impression that the images will end up elsewhere, but by default “export to disk”
writes back to the same
The real issue isn't even that it's a gratuitous change in terminology. Producing output images from DxO isn't primarily a question of where they end up: it's the processing that is involved. That's particularly evident with DxO, since it can take over 10 minutes to produce a single image. That's clearly (inefficient?) processing, not moving data from one place to another. So it's just plain misleading to call it “exporting”.
In my experience, a folder is a means of storing a collection of email messages. Depending on the MUA, it's either a file (Mbox) or a directory (Maildir), though I suppose many MUAs in the Microsoft space now store them in databases. For some reason, this usage has never been formalized.
But in the Microsoft space, it's used to mean directory, a list of file names and information about where to find the corresponding file.
The term folder gives the incorrect impression that the files to which it refers are somehow physically contained in the folder. In most file systems, this isn't the case, and in UNIX-related file systems there's no requirement that the file be referenced in only a single directory, or that only a single reference to the file be present in any directory. The term directory means something akin to a telephone directory: entries consist of a name and a number, and sometimes additional information. There can be multiple entries for the same telephone number, and numbers can be in multiple directories—just like in a file system directory. Nobody would imagine that the telephones or the people they connect to are physically located inside the phone book, but the term folder encourages this assumption on the part of files.
As if this wasn't bad enough in the first place, consider the issues of different languages. From time to time I do translation work between English and German. German presents a cultural problem that they hardly use folders—they use hard-covered files instead:
The word for this kind of file is „Ordner“—and that's what Microsoft call directories, although the correct translation is “file”. And that's supposed to make it easier to understand?
As applied to disks and other storage media, to “format” used to mean to prepare the disk to accept data. It involved setting up the magnetic patterns on the surface of the disk to represent the sectors. Nowadays this function is now almost invariably performed during the manufacturing process, but until about 20 years ago it was a necessary part of disk installation.
This term should really be historical: formatting is just not needed any more except for floppy disks, which should also be considered historical. But now people apply it to a completely different function, that of setting up file system structures. There's a slight justification for this in the Microsoft world, since they never had a different term, but it's creeping into the UNIX world too, where it's unnecessary: there's already a good description for it, either “creating a file system” or the name of the program, such as newfs.
The problem is, the alternative terms (“create a file system”) are a bit of a mouthful. In addition, you can build file systems on media that don't need any kind of traditional formatting, such as flash memory. So I'm gradually coming to accept this change of meaning.
This may be an Australianism, but it's annoying. I continually hear people referring to the slash character (/) as “forward slash”. But that's not the name: it's “slash”. This may seem minor, but it can cause confusion. If I dictate my own home page URL like that, I run the risk of somebody trying to access www.lemis.comforward/grog. One way or the other, it gets on my nerves, and it's an indication of a too Microsoft-centric attitude.
How did we get into this mess? Over the years, specific names have been assigned to punctuation marks. The term “slash” of the character / has been around for decades. More recently, at least in the places I've been, the reverse slash (\) was introduced and given the name backslash. I've never seen it on a typewriter, so I assume it was introduced some time in the mid-20th century for data processing purposes, along with a number of other strange and now obsolete characters such as the not sign (¬) and the “currrency” sign (¤).
One of the more unfortunate developments with Microsoft was that early on, before they had subdirectories, they chose the slash as an option delimiter in their command line processor. UNIX uses the hyphen for this purpose; thus, to list the contents of a directory, you might use the command ls, but if you want a detailed listing, you'll add the -l option. In the very early days, Microsoft chose the slash for this purpose; thus the command to list a directory sorted alphabetically would be DIR /O, or even DIR/O.
Later, Microsoft discovered the concept of multiple directories per file system, and they had a problem. They acknowledged that they wanted something UNIX-like, but the slash had been used for the option character, and they had also allowed it to be a field delimiter.
At this point it would still have been possible for them to change things, but they didn't; instead, they used the backslash for directory path delimiters. This has caused enormous problems ever since:
I've already ranted about exporting files. Of course, that means that you must have an import function too.
Once again I've come across this terminology in connection with digital photography. It's used (and almost understandable) to describe copying images from a camera to a computer, though there's no good reason not to call this copying. A good reason not to use another word is that it suggests a different action, and thus confuses people.
But then they start using it for other purposes. Olympus “Viewer” 3 uses it for purposes I haven't understood, but which suggest that to process a file, it first needs to be copied somewhere—maybe. Maybe that's what they do, another indication that people are confused. I certainly am.
Everybody knows what The Internet
is, right? To quote Wikipedia:
Or do they?
firefox is the Internet? It's a web browser! And that's the problem: for many uneducated people, the world-wide web is the Internet. But there's no reason to take the least common denominator. Clear terms are important for understanding. Using the word “Internet” to describe the web is like using the term “telephone system” for describing an telephone-based information system. No wonder people are confused.
This (lack of) thinking seems to pervade Microsoft. You can see more evidence in the “Control Panel”:
Here there are separate panels for the “Internet” and the network. This one probably occurred because of Microsoft's proprietary protocols, although I think most of them now run over the Internet protocols.
But that's only part of the story: the “Internet Options” appear all related to web browsing (what on earth is a “Temporary Internet File”?). If I want to set up Internet parameters on a Microsoft box, I can begin my search of the maze of twisty little menus, all different, at the “Network Connections” box, where they call the Internet protocols “TCP/IP”.
And, of course, Microsoft's web browser is called “Internet Explorer” (a term I'd be more likely to apply to things like nmap and wireshark). I've commented elsewhere about Microsoft's abuse of simple terms like “Explorer”.
To my immense disgust, this usage is creeping into the Unix space. In May 2016 I installed a Linux distribution that includes an “Internet” configuration page that only refers to a web browser. Network configuration is elsewhere.
Good software is intuitive, right? But what does “intuitive” mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary has 7 different descriptions. This one seems to come closest:
But that's just the start. How do you apprehend? Show a technical device such as a computer or a smart phone to somebody who has never seen it before, and the apprehend nothing immediately. To apprehend anything you need prior experience with them. And that's the problem.
It seems that “intuitive” now really means “logical within the immediate framework”. I
need a good example here, but in general the opposite is clearer: if you don't understand
the whole, no part is intuitive. If you do understand the whole, the parts are intuitive
if they fit well. That's not really intuition at all: it's
The Oxford English Dictionary has two meanings for “marquee”, an English one that I know (big tent, usually for events) and an American one (a canopy projecting over the main entrance to a building). But my scanner software creates marquees.
Huh? Which kind? Neither, of course. It seems to be a modern word meaning “crop area”. Who committed that obscenity? It seems that, like many others in photography, Adobe is to blame. And why? Beats me.
What's a modem? According to Wikipedia, it's a “device that modulates an analog carrier signal to encode digital information, and also demodulates such a carrier signal to decode the transmitted information”. While that needs precision, it's fairly clear that it applies to things like dialup (“POTS”) and DSL. But it seems that it is taking on the meaning of switch or maybe router.
How can that happen? Ignorance, as usual. In the ADSL days it became customary to have a central network component including an ADSL modem, a switch, NAT, firewall, and probably 802.11 access point. So they called it a modem. Now the successor devices no longer have the ADSL modem component, but the name has become established, and though it's no longer a modem, that's what they call it. I'm reminded of the smile of the Cheshire Cat.
Microsoft and imitators have decided to invent a new word for “display”. Or maybe it's “execute”. Or maybe it's “process”. Instead of saying “display” or “execute” or “process” (obviously too old-fashioned), they use “open”. Maybe the original intention, at least for “display” was to relate to the action of opening an envelope.
The problem is that this word already has a meaning in this connection. In traditional operating system technology, open means “make the file available for processing”. This is a confusing term for the non-technical, since it relates to the way the operating system handles data. The FreeBSD man page open(2) doesn't help:
open -- open or create a file for reading or writing
What open really entails depends on the operating system, but typically it means:
And that's all. No data is transferred to or from the file itself during the open process.
So open is a technical term. Why not let the non-technical use it for a different purpose? That's the way they built the Tower of Babel. There's already a perfectly good word, and one that is more descriptive. Why replace it with gobbledegook?
As if the situation wasn't bad enough, the term seems to have acquired further meanings beyond mail processing. It seems to be in general use for any action of displaying on the screen, and it seems that Apple, at any rate, uses “open” to mean “use”. If the file is a document, “open” means display it. If it's an “Application” (i.e. a program), “open” appears to mean “execute”. I think there's another meaning there too, but I forget.
Everybody knows what Open Source is, right? Well, no. I know, you probably know, and people in the community know, but ask the man in the street: “What's open source?” He's likely to hear “open sauce”, at least in Australia, and come up with some thoughts about barbecues:
Ask that same person about “free software”, and he won't have these problems. But the terms aren't interchangeable: free software is what it says. What's Open Source? I've come up with a lot of possibilities:
Richard Stallman has more extreme views, of course: “Open Source” is a way of developing software without conferring all freedoms.
About the only thing that most people don't consider is the availability of the source code—but that's where the name comes from. The proponents of the term had a number of reasons for it, mainly to impress commercial people who would take exception to words like “free”, but that doesn't seem to have worked. So, while I tolerate the term (and belong to the “community”), I don't use it.
The term PC is mainstream. It's been over a third of a century since IBM introduced the model 5150, and since then every man and his dog have one. I have many. But when I talk to telephone support people, and they ask me if I have a PC, what they really ask is “do you have a machine running Microsoft?”. From their point of view it could equally well be a laptop. But they never ask if it's running Microsoft; they just ask if it's running “Windows”. When I'm particularly obtuse I say “yes, of course I'm running windows, though I prefer to call it X.
|Personal Video Recorder||
Gradually computer-based video recorders are becoming mainstream. Years ago, possibly at TiVo, some marketeer came up with the term “PVR” or “Personal Video Recorder”. Why? What's personal about a video recorder? It's not restricted to any one person.
People have told me that there's a movement afoot to retrofit the expansion “Programmable Video Recorder”. But then, nearly all VCRs are programmable, and that would just add to the confusion. What's wrong with “CVR” (“Computer Video Recorder”)? The name “DVR” (“Digital Video Recorder”) also suggests itself, but nowadays just about all video recorders are digital.
What's a recipe? The Oxford English Dictionary says that it's a list of ingredients and procedures for medicines or food. But GNU Make has adopted it to mean the commands in a target.
What's wrong with that? Well, like all other terms used by only part of the population, it promotes confusion, the Tower of Babel effect. How does it compare to the terminology used in System V make or BSD make? Which books describe it?
Samsung is a Korean electronics manufacturer, one of the largest in the world. For some reason, though, they spell their name Sλmsung on most of their equipment. This could be Korean ignorance, but I don't think they're that ignorant. They've deliberately chosen to write their emblem SΛMSUNG instead of SAMSUNG, although they must know that Λ is from a different alphabet and represents the Roman letter L. Writing SΛMSUNG or Sλmsung is too much difficulty for me; I'll just transliterate the λ and write “Slmsung”. As least it's not as bad as the Korean car maker “KIL”.
The multimedia industry has a terminology problem: in days gone by, music was stored on analogue or digital disks, and the subdivisions of the music, whether pieces, songs or movements, were called “tracks”. If you read a digital track and store it in a file, it's clearly not a track any more, and the industry has decided on the word “song”.
I find this incredibly ugly. I suspect that my biggest objection is that it's a very narrow view of music, from the perspective of somebody who maybe really does listen mainly to songs. But the vast majority of pieces of music are not songs. Looking at Apple's indecipherable iTunes window, I find it almost nauseating to see individual movements of Mozart's wind concerti referred to as “songs”. It's even not appropriate for things like the individual parts of a song cycle like “Die schöne Müllerin”.
Yes, “piece of music” is ugly too, and far too long to pronounce. But what's wrong with the old word “track”? Other words have extended their meaning beyond the original. “Song” is doing it now, but by riding rough-shod over other terms.
The Oxford English Dictionary has, as ever, a number of meanings for “swipe”: “to drink hastily and copiously”, “to strike at with the full swing of the arms”, “to deal a swinging blow or hit at”, “to steal”. No mention (yet) of any computer-related meaning. Of the possible meanings, “to strike at with the full swing of the arms” seems to come closest, but it's still a long way off.
Everybody knows what a text is, right? You're reading one now. But it seems that the eye-candy oriented world has almost forgotten about texts. On 14 January 2015 I discovered that it now means a short message sent via a mobile telephone or similar. Surprisingly, even the OED has known about it for over 10 years, and has quotations going back as far as 1998:
Finally most systems are coming to use the domain name system for accessing computers, though it has taken a long time, and for reasons I don't understand many Microsoft ports of UNIX programs, such as route, have been emasculated so that you can only give them IP addresses, and not DNS names. In the meantime, the average literacy level of users and registrars alone has dropped to alarming depths, and many people use the term web address when they mean “domain name”. Some domain name registrars even do so on their web sites, though the practice seems to be diminishing. That's all the more surprising when you think that people tend to call the web “the Internet”.
“Windows” is the plural of the English word “window”, of course. In nearly all computers, information is displayed on a screen in a “window”. But Microsoft has decided to call their operating systems “Windows”, even when they don't have a display.
This is a calculated marketing move, of course, and they've even trademarked it, which says little good about the US legal system. I've written a separate rant about this one, so I won't go into more detail here.
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