Must Read: How a 1985 ‘Computerbabble’ Defined Tech Terms Everyone Knows Today

Must Read: How a 1985 'Computerbabble' Defined Tech Terms Everyone Knows Today

We know that computers have led to a whole army of developments and changes in the English language. “Friend” is now both a noun and a verb, a “sandbox” can be for developers, and a “tablet” is no longer just an ancient relic.

But not all of these changes are recent: The word “e-mail” has been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1989, and some basic technological jargon began moving toward mainstream English even earlier than that.

For example, take the following entries from a “Layperson’s guide to ‘computerbabble,'” published in a 1985 edition of the Toronto-based Financial Post.

The guide promises to allow readers to “cut expertly through the jungle of computerbabble,” and gives a rundown of plain language definitions for the words and phrases that were, at that time, starting to escape into wider use but that were not widely known outside of computer scientist circles.

Although often funny in retrospect, the guide is also surprisingly comprehensive. The definitions of many of these terms will be second nature to most 2015 readers. Others are more technical. The definitions here speak to how much assumed knowledge of computer technology has changed over time

Here are selections from how the Financial Post instructed its readers to talk about computers in the mid-’80s. We’ve condensed and organized their alphabetical list into a few, easier to read, categories.


The Basics:

“Anything containing letters of the alphabet and numbers, such as a typewriter keyboard.”

“A continuous signal, along which all information, such as voice and data, travels at the same time. The human voice, for example, is a continuous (analog) signal. Analog is slower and less precise than digital.”

“Unlike analog, this sends information in a series of discrete pulses, much like a machine gun firing bullets at a target. Much faster and more accurate than analog.”

“A computer, smart telephone, word processor or other electronic device.”

“Instructions to the computers to enable you to carry out specific functions – such as data analysis, spreadsheets or word processing. Usually in the form of small magnetic floppy disks, which are inserted into the computer and instruct it how to process the information entered into it.”

“A standard typewriter keyboard, after the layout of the first six letters in the top line. Computers, smart telephones, and word processors have this basic keyboard, often with additional keys.”


Getting “on line”:

“Short for modulate/demodulate, this is used to attach a computer to the telephone network. It changes computer digital signals to analog for sending, and reconverts the analog signal at the other end so the receiving computer can understand it.”

On line
“Direct access to the processing power of a computer. A computer timesharing service, in which a number of subscribers share the same central computer, is an example. When subscribers call up and connect their terminals to the system, they are on line.”

Off line
“No longer connected. When subscribers in the example above finish using the the central computer, they are said to be off line.”

Electronic mail
“All the ways of sending and receiving messages using computers. Hooking a computer into the telephone network gives access to such services as word processing, database, stock market quotations, provided by electronic mail companies.”

“A modem that can send and receive information while connected to the telephone line. If it can only handle these functions one at a time it is half-duplex. Full-duplex is sometimes just called duplex.”


Learning about computers:

“A building is made up of many parts. So is a computer’s brain, or central processing unit (CPU). Architecture refers to how the CPU is assembled, which affects how it is programmed.”

“Often referred to as “bits per second,” the numbers of characters per second that can be sent across a telephone line. Baud rates are expressed in multiples of 10. A personal computer with a baud rate of 300 can send messages at a speed of 30 characters per second.”

“Short for binary digit, the smallest unit of information in computers. Bits are usually bundled together in groups of eight, called bytes.”

Black box
“Converts the signals of one machine into signals another dissimilar machine (such as a telephone) can understand. It is attached to these machines by cables.”

“A separate device or space set aside in a computer’s memory to store information temporarily. For example, most printers hooked up to computers can’t print as fast as the information arrives, so they must store the information while they catch up.”

“The equivalent of one letter or number in a computer’s memory, usually measured in increments of 1,000.”

“Anything stored electronically in a computer. Database is also a special program that enables you to sort through these lists for information.”

“A telephone, computer, word processor or other piece of equipment used for a specific purpose is said to be dedicated – a telephone line used only for transmitting data is a dedicated telephone line.”

“The built-in operating program (also read only memory, or ROM) of a computer or smart telephone, so called because you cannot erase it. Also applied to electronic devices containing this program.”

“From the Latin, kilo, for 1,000. Often, just the letter K appears after a number, describing the size of a computer’s memory – 64,000 bytes-worth would be 64K.”

“The rules of operation built into a computer and its programs.”


Extra credit:

Fibre optics
“The technology that combines tiny infrared lasers with glass fibres made up out of the purest silica sand to send information. A century ago, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell discovered light could transmit soundwaves, but it is only today optical fibre cables are being harnessed for business communications. Eventually, these hair-thin strands of glass will replace all copper wire cables.”

“The latest buzzword. The functions of different equipment, such as telephones, word processors and computers, are combined in one machine, or linked together in a network. Not true integration if the combination doesn’t improve efficiency or is impractical. A digital watch/calculator combination is not an integrated system because the functions aren’t directly related to each other.”

“PhD in computer engineering not required. The machine and the software programs are easy to use and understand.”

© 2015 The Washington Post

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