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<   No. 2116   2008-11-11   >

Comic #2116

1 Hitler's Brain Clones: {in unison} Ah... Herr Doktor Jones. We meet again.
1 Monty: But I've never met any of you before.
2 Haken: Mein apologies. This is a glitch in their software.
2 Monty: "Software"?
3 Haken: Our new Nazi Science name for this sort of computing!
4 Erwin: We wanted to call it "squishyware", but die Führer objected.

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Think about the word "software" for a minute.

It comes from the word "hardware", which itself originally referred to the "hard" components used to assemble wooden things and make them stronger: nails, screws, hinges, bolts, brackets, and so on. Compared to the wood, these parts were hard, and "ware" just means a product or item. So the name fits well.

Over time, hardware came to refer to the tools used in wood and metalworking, and the raw materials as well, now including the wood. This is why you go to a hardware store to buy lumber, paint, glue, and all sorts of other stuff that we now think of as "hardware".

Then computers came along, and there was a need for new jargon to describe the various bits and pieces of computer technology. The physical components came to be called "hardware", borrowing the term from the wood and metalworking world. This is a common theme in the development of new forms of technology: words belonging to another field of activity are adopted to new meanings within the new field. It's easier than inventing completely new words.

So "hardware" now refers to, well, what we all know as computer hardware: the physical components of a computer system. But computers also have non-physical components, the data they process. (They're stored physically, but the data bits themselves are an abstraction, a representation of information, not something tangible you can hold.) What shall we call this stuff, this stuff that's not hardware...

The opposite of "hard" is "soft". Software. The first person who came up with that must have thought, "What a weird word." Bits of data are not in any literal sense "soft", nor are they "ware" in any traditional sense. Yet here we have a word that neatly sums up what they are, drawn by analogy to a word adopted for no particularly good reason other than convenience from a completely different field, in which the word had already become corrupted so that its original - sensible - meaning had long since become lost.

Soft. Ware. In no way whatsoever can that conceivably be interpreted in a literal sense to describe what we all know it as*. Yet the word is a natural part of our language now and we all know what it means. Ain't language fun?

* Eh... well. "Ware" can also describe something for sale, and you can sell software. But just think, if you didn't know what software was, and someone asked you to guess based on the name, what would you come up with? Pillows? Marshmallows? You would never, ever come up with "computer programs and data".

2020-11-07 Rerun commentary: The earliest known use of the word "software" comes from August 1953, by Richard R. Carhart, in a Rand Corporation Research Memorandum titled A survey of the current status of the electronic reliability problem‎, viewable in an online PDF scan.

It seems the Nazis did not write papers about their earlier use of software.

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