Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • “Grok” comes from the sci-fi novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” and means “to understand” something deeply and innately.
  • Computer geeks adopted “grok” to describe a profound understanding of programming code and techniques. The term has become an integral part of deep computer culture.

You may have heard that Elon Musk has released his own take on ChatGPT, in the form of “Grok.” It’s a weird word, to be sure, but Elon didn’t invent it. Instead, like the name “Tesla,” there’s history involved here.

Where Does “Grok” Come From?

The term “Grok” comes from the novel Stranger in a Strange Land by sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein. The same prolific writer responsible for Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, to name a few.

Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961, and was a controversial novel for quite some time thanks to its radically liberal themes and content. The book tells the story of a man raised by Martians who returns to Earth and provides a very alien perspective on human nature, culture, and society. I really wouldn’t want to spoil one of my favorite books of all time, so if you’re so inclined, I can’t possibly recommend it more.

Stranger in a Strange Land Book Cover

Stranger in a Strange Land

A true classic Sci-Fi novel that tells the story of a man raised by Martians who must return to Earth and try to adapt to our strange ways and perhaps teach humanity something about themselves in the meantime.

But the book as a whole isn’t the thing we’re most interested in here; it’s the Martian term grok, which does a lot of heavy lifting in the novel as a sort of mysterious catchall. The translation from Martian is literally “to drink,” which in the context of the nearly waterless Mars is a profound concept. Grok has so many connotations that it almost becomes meaningless in a Zen way, but the meaning that matters here is “to understand.”

However, to grok isn’t just to have a surface understanding of something. It means you understand something innately, that it’s become part of who you are. Sort of like Bane from Batman, who groks the dark, unlike the rich guy in a bat suit.

How Computer Geeks Adopted “Grok”

It’s probably not too surprising that there’s a significant overlap between people who are into computers and those who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. The word started popping up in computer publications, usually in relation to understanding programming code and the problems one solves by using it.

The “hacker dictionary” Jargon File (fair warning, the site does not have HTTPS encryption) describes it like this:

When you claim to “grok” some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity. For example, to say that you “know” Lisp is simply to assert that you can code in it if necessary – but to say you “grok” Lisp is to claim that you have deeply entered the world-view and spirit of the language, with the implication that it has transformed your view of programming. Contrast zen, which is a similar supernatural understanding experienced as a single brief flash.

It’s especially in the world of Unix, Linux, and FOSS (Free and Open Source) computer culture where I encountered “grok” the most over the years. This makes the most sense when you consider the “radical” ideas and philosophies behind FOSS and the similarly revolutionary ideas in the novel.

Then you have reference books such as Grokking the GIMP and advanced network tools such as ngrok. They serve as evidence that “grok” was and continues to be an integral part of deep computer culture, as much as recursive acronyms, guru meditation, or daemons.

So, for Elon Musk’s new AI to adopt the name is perhaps a much bolder move than those who don’t know the deep magic might realize.

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By John P.

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