Thu. Jun 13th, 2024


Computer jargon can be opaque even to those that know the words well. Since although you might learn what all the terms mean, that doesn’t mean you know where the word came from, or what it meant originally. Many of the people who coined computer terms not only lived in a very different time, but were pretty eccentric. So it’s no surprise the surviving jargon is often more than a little odd. Here are some of my favorite weird terms.



Daemon

A “daemon” is a background process that handles some sort of task. A common example would be a mail daemon which periodically checks if you’ve received any new emails and then goes back to sleep. It most likely comes from the Greek word for a supernatural spirit.

Computer Daemon Cartoon
Sydney Louw Butler / How-To Geek / MidJourney


The word was coined in its computer context by Professor Fernando J. Corbato, who stated it was inspired by Maxwell’s daemon of physics and thermodynamics. They understood it to be a type of attending spirit from the Greek meaning.

Guru Meditation

Cartoon of a guru meditating in front of a computer
Sydney Louw Butler / How-To Geek / MidJourney

“Guru meditation” sounds properly “new age” and spiritual, but it’s actually an error message from the Amiga family of computers. This was an error you saw when your Amiga hit a fatal exception (more on that later) and the screen would show the message along with a code. It seems to be a bit of an in-joke, and I could not find an absolutely definitive origin for the term, other than the idea that the computer’s mind was empty like a Zen monk meditating.


These days you are likely to see a Guru Meditation when a website you’re trying to visit goes belly up, since the error message is part of the popular Varnish back-end software used to accelerate content-heavy, dynamic websites.

Grok

Martians grokking
Sydney Louw Butler / How-To Geek / MidJourney

I wrote an entire article about how the word “Grok” became a computer term, but the Cliffs Notes version is that the word comes from the SF novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Yes, the same guy who wrote Starship Troopers, among many other classics. It’s a Martian word that means literally to “drink”, but in context, it means to understand something on a holistic and fundamental level. In a computer context, it means understanding something intuitively. For example, if you Grok generative AI, you really understand it on a deep level.


Kernel Panic

This is an error message that comes from UNIX, and therefore also applies to members of the UNIX family like Linux, and macOS. The kernel is the core of an operating system, and the bit that’s in charge of everything. A kernel “panic” means there’s been some sort of error so fundamental that the kernel can’t recover from it. The whole system will stop, and the machine has to be rebooted. The kernel has lost control of the situation and is flipping the table, basically.

Race Condition

Two computers in a foto race
Sydney Louw Butler / How-To Geek / MidJourney


While it might sound like some sort of term from a sociology textbook, a “race condition” happens when two or more processes are running on a computer, and the outcome of the one depends on the timing or order of execution of the other. Basically, there’s a lack of communication between the two processes, they don’t wait for each other to finish their job before doing their own, and this can lead to all sorts of weird and sometimes dangerous situations. Especially in systems that have critical jobs like keeping a nuclear power plant cooled, or monitoring someone’s vital signs. The term was already in use as far back as 1954 in the field of electronics, since it can happen in any situation where two dependent processes are running.

Fatal Exception

While his sounds like the movie title of a thriller, a fatal exception is an error that forces a program or the whole operating system to close or shut down. This usually happens when a program tries to run an “illegal” instruction or tries to access a section of memory it’s not meant to. It’s “fatal” in the sense that it’s the end of the road. You can’t keep going anymore. You are an ex program.


Nonce

This is a word you’ll see come up often if you work in the cryptographic space, and on many websites you’ll find this word in nestled somewhere in the site’s code. The word is a shortening of “number used once”, and basically means a random number that’s added into an encryption protocol or some sort of digital signature or handshake. Nonces are crucial in preventing a specific type of attack referred to as a “replay” attack. This is where a hacker records data that’s been sent and simply repeats it to gain access.

By adding in a nonce, you ensure that there can’t be duplicate commutations, because there’s a pseudorandom number that’s different each time. The term may also be related to the linguistic concept of a nonce word, which is “a word invented for a particular occasion or situation.” according to the Cambridge dictionary.

Salt

A cartoon of a salt shaker next to a computer
Sydney Louw Butler / How-To Geek / MidJourney


Somewhat related to nonces, “salt” is random data added to a hash. Hungry yet?

“Hashing” is the practice of applying a mathematical formula to computer data to get a fixed-length string of numbers and letters known as a “hash.” The hash doesn’t contain any of the original data, but if you apply the same hashing technique to the same data, you get the same answer every time.

Hashes are commonly used to encrypt passwords. The server does not have your original password. Instead, when you type your password and log in, the hash function is applied to the text you entered. If the hash matches the one on file, the password is correct. However, hackers can use something known as a “rainbow table” to defeat this security.

A rainbow table is a database of all possible passwords that’s been precomputed over a long period of time. This means if they get their hands on the hash, they simply have to look it up on the rainbow table to see which password will match that hash.


By adding “salt” to a password, you effectively make rainbow tables useless, forcing a hacker to use brute force methods to try and crack the hash, which will likely take so long, it’s not worth the effort.


There’s something endearing about the lore behind computer terms. Early pioneers or communities coin terms inspired by so many different niche interests, and then it just sticks forever. I wonder which of the computer terms we invent will still be in use 50 years from now?



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By John P.

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