Alternate Terminology: Computers, Ordinators, or Ypologists?

By Tom Anderson


In this second article on alternate terminology, we will explore the origins of the terms used in Our TimeLine (OTL) for another commonplace technology whose terms we use every day. As before, sometimes learning the names independently developed in other languages in OTL can give us ideas for interesting alternative names we could use in an alternate history work to immediately signify 'something is different' to the read.

The computer is an interesting example of this because much of the terminology associated with it is older than people assume. The word 'computer' goes back to at least the seventeenth century, and was used to mean a professional mathematician with a pencil who carried out calculations--or 'computations'. In the Victorian era, many of these computers (today referred to as 'human computers' to avoid confusion) were women, and the profession remained female-majority into the middle of the twentieth century when it largely ceased to exist. Early operators of computers in the modern sense were also often women (often because it was seen as an evolution of a secretarial role). The late twentieth and early twenty-first century conception of the field as being dominated by awkward young men is therefore something of a historical aberration!

Indeed, the first 'computer programme' was devised by a woman, Lady Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron) as Charles Babbage worked on his early mechanical 'difference engine' computer. Lovelace did not coin the term, however. Already in the 18th century, inventors had created complicated mechanical looms operated by punch cards which could make them follow out a list of instructions.

What term did people in the 18th century know that signified a list of things happening in order? Why not the list of pieces of music being played at a concert - the concert programme? Hence came programmable looms, the ancestors of computers. The inventor of the programmable loom, Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) was even immortalised in one of the first 'printouts' in 1839 - a loom was programmed with over 24,000 punch cards to weave his portrait from black and white thread. Punch cards would go on to be used as the basis for programming early computers well into the twentieth century.


Given the age of these terms, one might therefore assume that they are the only ones possible to use, and that a timeline with a point of divergence in the last few centuries will inevitably still call computers computers. While it is an interesting point to ponder, there are certainly other possible terms that could have been used, as illustrated by the terms used in other languages in OTL. Jacquard's native France refers to computers as ordinateurs (which would be rendered in English as 'ordinators'), stemming from the Latin word ordino 'to organise'. In a rare case of one being able to trace back a term to its exact origin, the French use of ordinateur stems from a request by IBM France in 1955 to professor of philology Jacques Perret. IBM were concerned that caculateur, the existing term, would be too restrictive given what true computers could do. This is one example of a recurring trend in many languages where a (sometimes artificial) distinction was imposed between what we call calculators and computers to emphasise the superior capabilities of the latter. It is worth remembering in English that both terms mean effectively the same thing, coming from Latin calculo and computare, both meaning 'sum up, reckon'. The fact two terms exist is because calculo refers to calculus 'a pebble', thus specifically referring back to counting with pebbles. In a timeline where this distinction was not important for marketing, computers might well just be called calculators.

It is worth remembering that an established term can turn on such seemingly trivial things. In my alternate history work Look to the West, computers are dubbed 'ypologists' (from the Greek word to calculate, as also used by OTL Greece for computers) because of a famous political cartoon punning on computer pioneers nervously 'apologising' for putting an angry mob of human computers out of word. This is my attempt to emulate such happenstance cases as are commonly found to be at the back of the established names used in OTL.

Computers don't just do disconnected calculations, of course; these are used by programmes to solve problems. The term 'application' (shortened from 'application programme') is often used to refer to programmes designed for a specific task that are seen as a single tool by the user--though this is a vague definition and many simply treat 'programme' and 'application' as synonymous. The abbreviation 'Apps' for applications is sometimes assumed to be a neologism because it was popularised among the general public by Apple's iPhone, but--though it was indeed apparently first used by Apple--it dates back to 1987 and was also used by many other companies. Generations of British schoolchildren will recall seeing an Apps icon on their Acorn Archimedes computers--whose heart, the ARM chip, is now found in countless tablets, smartphones and games consoles across the world.

Computers are also a good illustration of how terms can outlive their original purpose but remain established by inertia. One joke that circulates periodically is that young people only know a floppy disk as 'the save icon', its metaphorical meaning having outlived the format itself. But how many people who only used the 3 1/2 inch floppies know why they are called floppy disks? After all, the 3 1/2 inch disks are rather stiff; it is only the older 5 1/4 inch and 8 inch floppy disks that were flexible and gained the nickname. The disc shape of the magnetic storage medium is also firmly hidden in the newer discs but peeped out of its square sleeve on the older ones. Another survival related to floppy disks is that computer hard drives are still routinely assigned the C: drive letter, betraying the fact that hard drives were originally typically added to older computers that originally managed with just two floppy drives to store information.

'Booting' a computer is something we now do without thinking, but rarely stop to think where the term comes from. It stems from the early days of electronic computers in the 1950s, and refers to the paradox that software must be loaded onto a computer by other software running the computer, so where does it begin - reflecting the parable (loved by the US military) of 'to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps'. Booting is short for bootstrapping. The term might not have survived, as IBM switched to the more anodyne 'Initial Program Load' for its first transistorised supercomputer in 1961, but it didn't catch on.

The mouse is another example of a 'quirky' term used in computing which is older than many people think. The name was coined in a book published by Bill English, one of the mouse's two co-inventors with Douglas Engelbart, in 1965; the mouse itself had been created a couple of years earlier. The name stems from its size and its trailing cord resembling a tail--thus making it an artefact name for wireless mice. Trackballs are even older, dating from the end of the Second World War when they were used for a fire-control radar system controlled by analogue computers. Touchscreens were developed from work in the 1960s and 70s but took a long time to leave the area of advanced frontline technology: IBM produced a touchscreen monitor as early as 1991, but improvements in both the underlying technology (from resistive to capacitive touchscreens) and bringing down manufacturing costs were required before today's ubiquitous screens could become possible. Touchscreens may represent an example of a technology that has entered the mainstream so abruptly, and at a time of global English language domination, that alternative terms in different languages (as opposed to translations) are few and far between.

Finally, perhaps partly because of the role of the acronym-loving United States in their popularisation, computers are a field in which acronyms long outlive people remembering what they actually stand for. Some of these were already discussed in the previous article on the internet. Others include USB (Universal Serial Bus, once dubbed 'Useless Serial Bus' as companies were slow to bring out equipment that supported it, but now the norm), CPU (Central Processing Unit), RAM (Random Access Memory) and, indeed, PC (Personal Computer) itself. Once that term only referred to a specific make of computer by IBM (...International Business Machines), and other companies began making 'PC-compatible' computers that could share its software, whereas previously all computers had been mutually incompatible. Now, the term has become used for almost all computers, though Apple's Macintosh line still defiantly points to its distinct heritage with 'I'm a PC and I'm a Mac'.

It's clear that while the basic idea of an electronic computer long existed in the human imagination, the exact details of how we arrived at the ones we know and love (when they are not updating Windows 10) today could have been very different, even with a relatively recent POD. To that end, they are a fertile area for alternate terminology: when a character accesses the Extragrid on his Ordinator, we know something has changed.

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