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Glork! A Glossary for Gweeps

5 minute read
Otto Friedrich

Even users should grok this cuspy sampler of computerese

Since computers can understand only two words, variously defined as yes and no, on and off, or zero and one, computer scientists have devised a babel of “languages” that translate human wishes into some variation of the computer’s two words. BASIC is the language of most desktop personal computers, originally written for Dartmouth students in the mid-1960s; FORTRAN is an earlier attempt used mainly for scientific problems; Logo is designed for children; and Ada is used mainly for military problems.*

While they were at it, the computer scientists began creating a jargon of their own, sometimes described pejoratively as computerese, to talk to each other. Like the high priests of any new religion, these keepers of the computer faith like to rename familiar things (How else could a TV screen become a monitor?). They like even more to give new things names that are as mystifying to an outsider as the secret password of an esoteric cult. Thus the computer’s two forms of “memory” are known as RAM and ROM. The temporary memory, RAM, meaning “random-access memory,” can easily be changed; the permanent memory, ROM, meaning “read-only memory,” cannot be modified.

All clear? Those who think so are called “computer literate,” which is synonymous with young, intelligent and employable; everybody else is the opposite. Any new technology requires its technical terms, of course, but computerese also reaches out with robot arms to seize ordinary words and twist them to its own syntactical purposes. The most striking example is the forced conversion of nouns into verbs. The computer-literate person has learned to access, to format, to interface. Anyone who objects to such jargon is, to the computer literate, not merely uninformed but bletcherous.

That odd word, which describes how a gweep feels when he meets a phrog (see below), generally applies to anything so bad that the computerist cries out, “Bletch!” (the equivalent of the layman’s “Yecch!”). This and much else can be learned from a remarkable work called The Hacker’s Dictionary, which, as might be expected, is not a book but a computer printout that can be acquired only by accessing the right data base. The term hacker is itself an example, for underground languages like to reverse the connotations of words; in black English, for instance, bad means good. So hacker, a term of contempt in ordinary English, becomes high praise when computer fanatics apply it to themselves. As for anyone who simply employs a computer for some practical purpose and then shuts it off, the hacker derisively refers to him as a “user.”

Assembled by a network of hackers at M.I.T., Stanford and elsewhere, who all keep adding contributions on their computers, the dictionary offers a Carrollian gallimaufry of inventions. Samples:

Crufty: poorly built, overcomplicated.

Cuspy: very good.

DWIM: do what I mean. A guess at what was intended by an inferior instruction. Also DTRT, do the right thing.

Frobnitz (plural: frobnitzem): an unspecified physical object, a widget.

Glork: mild surprise, sometimes tinged with outrage.

Grok: to understand; originally a Martian word in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

Gweep: hacker suffering from overwork.

Phrog: objectionable person, between a turkey and a toad.

Spazz: to behave erratically.

Other words that already exist outside the computer world have been given crisp new meanings. “Vanilla,” for example, is now synonymous with ordinary. “Garbage collection” has been shortened to G.C. and turned into a euphemistic verb: “I’m going to G.C. my desk.” “Rape” has broadened to mean violence to a program.

These images of trouble are ubiquitous in computerese. When the computer is doing nothing, it is described as catatonic; when it is working badly, it is said to be chomping or producing gubbish (a combination of garbage and rubbish); when it gets still worse, it is “pessimal,” as any pessimist would know; when it gives off smoke, the program is considered fried; and when everything breaks down, that is called crashing. To complain about any of this is “to gritch.”

This new language often displays a youthfully exuberant sense of the absurd. Thus “moby,” meaning large, is said to derive from Melville’s Moby Dick, though some say from Moby Pickle. And “bogus,” which used to be squealed by Evelyn Waugh debutantes, has now flowered into bogosity, and even into autobogophobia, a fear of becoming bogotified.

Some of this wit can become exotic indeed, as in “the -p convention,” which consists of adding the letter p to a word to denote a predicate. Thus “Food-p?” means “Are you hungry?” Or “State of the world-p?” might elicit a literal “Yes, the world is O.K.,” but the hackers acclaim a nonsense reply: “Yes, the world has a state.” The classic pun involves a hacker who wanted to know whether a neighbor would like to share a bowl of soup big enough to feed two and asked, “Split-p soup?”

In a category all by itself is “real world.” The hackers define this with disdain as “the location of non-programmers” and “the location of the status quo.” —By Otto Friedrich

* Ada is named in honor of Lord Byron’s science-minded daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, whose friend and collaborator Charles Babbage was the eccentric genius of the Analytical Engine. She also lives on in what is known as Lady Lovelace’s Objection, which refers not to any romantic advances by Babbage but to the age-old question of whether a machine can be made to think. Objected Lady Lovelace: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”

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