Given the extraordinary growth of - computer terminology, it
is not enough these days to take pride in avoiding redundant expressions
like RAM memory or DOS operating system; no longer a source
of linguistic competence to realise that MIPS (Millions of Instructions
Per Second ) is not the plural of USP. It is even old hat to have mastered
the meaning of RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer microprocessor,
that speedy microchip that simplified hardware and shifted many complex
operations to the software, thereby earning the alternative name of Relegate
Interesting Stuff to the Compiler.
That was just the prelude. Now MPPs (Massively Parallel
Processors) are on the horizon. Those of us who absorbed, however imperfectly,
three or four generations of computer terminology on the fast trip from Trash
80 (an affectionate name for the old Tandy TRS computer) to Teraflops must
meet the challenge. We are going to have to learn to debate the relative
merits of SIMD (Single-Instruction, Multiple-Data) and MIMD
(Multiple-instruction, Multiple- Data ) machines. Then we'll know about MIMD
We will have to learn about MPP topologies (the way the processors
are interconnected, including "fat trees," in which processors are grouped
into clusters, or even clusters of clusters, and "meshes," in which processors
are usually attached in a two-dimensional grid. We will have to conquer the
distinction between the "boudoir," with its coupled processor and memory,
and the "dance hall," which has processors on one side and memories on the
We'll cope. Tera taxonomy, the classification of the massively
parallel machines that will soon achieve processing rates of a trillion
floating-point operations per second, is, after all, but the latest addition
to a dictionary that shows no signs of slowing down. Subduing this lexicon
is probably going to be a lifetime task, but given the exuberant nature of
the language, it also promises to be a lively one.
Those beginning the job quickly find out that whatever new
expression they are encountering will promptly hatch its own linguistic family.
For instance, "fuzzy" -initially an adjective in
fuzzy logic (the modelling of computer reasoning
on the kind of imprecision found in human reasoning), fuzzy representation
and fuzzy systems-soon appeared as a verb, "fuzzify," with its nominalisation
of " fuzzification," leading to the negative form " defuzzify" (to convert
to crisp values) and its noun, " defuzzification." The novice confronting
this linguistic richness is soon parsing sentences such as "A conventional
fuzzy system normalises and converts its inputs into fuzzy form, executes
the rules relevant to the inputs and defuzzifies the resultant output fuzzy
sets." And the novice dealing with " compress/decompress" soon discovers
that the software that does the job uses two kinds of algorithms, one "lossless,"
the other "lossy," leading to mastery of the vivid phrase
"lossy compression techniques."
Aspirants to the language must also cope with many of its terms
in abbreviated forms, usually acronyms (initial letters or parts of the term
spoken as a single word, RAM or initialisms (initial letters or parts of
a term pronounced letter by letter, CPU). In line with the ruling
ethos of computer terminology-liveliness-these categories are often merged,
giving us Troff (Typeset RunOFF, pronounced "tee-roff"), say, or DRAM
(Dynamic Random Access Memory, pronounced "dee-ram").
Capitalisation in these acronyms comes and goes. Most commonly
seen are all capitals (DRAM, but many who find a string of capital letters
unsightly, or even distracting, have opted instead to capitalise only the
initial letters of longer acronyms. The difference
of opinion has led to Fortran (a portmanteau
word, from FORmula TRANslation) for some, FORTRAN for others. Inevitably,
a linguistic area this rambunctious has given rise to three or even four
versions of the same acronym-for instance, Teraflops, teraFLOPS, teraflops
and teraFlops ( from tera, trillion, plus FLoating-point OPerations per Second).
The flexibility-some might even call it abandon-of computer
terminology extends to its cheerful trashing of whatever outdated distinctions
remained between nouns and verbs. Consider that classic verb "write," which
in computer talk routinely transforms itself into a noun. As the
Communications of the Association for computing Machinery (ACM) says,
"Granularity is the property of memory writes on multiprocessor systems such
that independent writes to adjacent aligned data produce consistent results."
The fearless interchange of noun and verb frequently leads to what computational
linguists call a garden-path sentence guaranteed to be parsed incorrectly
on first reading -for example, " The second processor will observe the writes
out of order." The popularity of back-to-back nouns in computer talk, with
the first one or two nouns used as adjectives ( "write latency," "memory
write request"), adds to the garden-path effect, because many of the attributive
nouns are, of course, ex-verbs. A beginner in the terminology thus acquires
patience along with an understanding of such phrases as write latency (it
is the time between the memory write request and the storage of the data.
The quickest of looks in dictionaries of computer terms available
in print and on-line provides convincing evidence that the terminology is
irreverent, upbeat and, above all, changing. So far it seems to be satisfying
its expansionist tendencies in the main either by coining words or by wreaking
havoc on traditional definitions. It has, however, occasionally preserved
the historical meaning of some of its terms, though not for long. "Virtual,"
for instance, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "admitting
of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned,"
retained its earlier meaning (in "optics," "virtual focus," "virtual image")
even when a few centuries later it became attached to "circuit," "memory"
and "disk." Such restraint was probably too much, though, for a language
this spirited-and somewhere between memory and disk, and certainly by reality,
virtual began to derail into virtuality. Recently it landed on the cover
of Time magazine for a story on "the dark edges of the computer age," a clear
indication that it is time for a virtual replacement. When it arrives, that
entertaining reference the Hacker's Dictionary is sure to chronicle
it. If you are interested in looking up a new word on-line, do as experts
in the computer science department advise us-grab it off the net.
ANNE EISENBERG, a professor at Polytechnic University in
Brooklyn, is the author of four books on scientific writing.
ISP Internet Service Provider
GUI Graphics User Interface
URL Universal Resource Locater
ISDN Integrated Services Digital Network
HTTP Hyper Text Transfer Protocol
FTP File Transfer Protocol
PABX Private Automatic Branch Exchange
CGI Common Gateway Interface
MIDI Musical Instrument Digital Interface
MIME stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions - which means that it's the way of sending files across the Internet as part of email. You can send any file across the Internet by email, but the file has to be 'encoded' - turned into a format that email can understand - and then 'decoded' back to the original file at the other end.