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Sez You...
We were copied on this interesting e-mail discussion.

From Richard Steinberg/Mr. Smarty Pants (The Austin Chronicle):

Professor Corbato

I write a trivia column for a newspaper called The Austin Chronicle.  Someone has asked me the origin of the word daemon as it applies to computing. Best I can tell based on my research, the word was first used by people on your team at Project MAC using the IBM 7094 in 1963. The first daemon (an abbreviation for Disk And Executive MONitor) was a program that automatically made tape backups of the file system.  Does this sound about right? Any corrections or additions?  Thank you for your time!

From Fernando J. Corbato:

Your explanation of the origin of the word daemon is correct in that my group began using the term around that time frame. However the acronym explanation is a new one on me. Our use of the word daemon was inspired by the Maxwell's daemon of physics and thermodynamics. (My background is Physics.) Maxwell's daemon was an imaginary agent which helped sort molecules of different speeds and worked tirelessly in the background. We fancifully began to use the word daemon to describe background processes which worked tirelessly to perform system chores. I found a very good explanation of all this online at:
(Search on "Maxwell" to locate the pertinent paragraph.)

To save you the trouble, I will cut-and-paste it right here. It comes from a web-column entitled "Take Our Word For It" run by Melanie and Mike Crowley, etymology enthusiasts!

From Jan Danilo: 

I am interested in the origin of the word daemon. I work in information technology and I have always heard of system processes referred to as daemons. I assumed that it is an older spelling of demon. Can you shed some light on this point?

Why certainly. Someone give us some of those phosphorescent genes that have recently been spliced to mice DNA and we'll shed light like mad. Demon and daemon were once used interchangeably. The former came to English from medieval Latin, while the latter was from classical Latin. The earliest use appears to have been in the phrase daemon of Socrates, which was his "attendant, ministering, or indwelling spirit; genius". That was in the late 14th century. It was a short time later that the term demon came to refer to "an evil spirit" by influence of its usage in various versions of the Bible. The Greek form was used to translate Hebrew words for "lords, idols" and "hairy ones (satyrs)". Wyclif translated it from Greek to English fiend or devil. This is how the evil connotation arose. By the late 16th century, the general supernatural meaning was being distinguished with the spelling daemon, while the evil meaning remained with demon. Today daemon can mean "a supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men" or "a guiding spirit".

[Warning: This paragraph is about science so, if this topic causes you undue alarm, please close your eyes until you've finished reading it.] The 19th century scientist James Maxwell once daydreamed (the polite term is "thought experiment") about a problem in physics. He imagined a closed container which was divided in half. In the middle of the divider was a tiny gate, just large enough to admit one molecule of gas. This gate, in Maxwell's imagination, was operated by a tiny daemon. This daemon observed the speed (i.e. temperature) of the molecules heading for the gate and, depending on the speed, let them through. If he let only slow molecules pass from side A to side B and only fast molecules pass from side B to side A, then A would get hot while B cooled. Maxwell's daemon was only imaginary, of course, but as it seemed to evade the laws of thermodynamics it caused quite a stir. Eventually, though, the theory of quantum mechanics showed why it wouldn't work. [OK, you may open your eyes, now.]

As you probably know, the "system processes" called daemons monitor other tasks and perform predetermined actions depending on their behavior. This is so reminiscent of Maxwell's daemon watching his molecules that we can only assume that whoever dubbed these "system processes" had Maxwell's daemon in mind. Unfortunately, we have found no hard evidence to support this.  [Now, of course, we have!]

We also assume that this is the meaning behind the, host to many United Kingdom web sites.

Professor Jerome H. Saltzer, who also worked on Project MAC, confirms the Maxwell's demon explanation.  He is currently working on pinpointing the origin of the erroneous acronym etymology for daemon in this sense.  [We have edited Issue 129 to reflect this confirmation of our original assumption.  Isn't it wonderful to be able to trace a word to its source so cleanly?]

From Brad Daniels:

While au jus does mean literally "with juice", it is short for sauce au jus [de beouf], meaning "sauce made with juice [of beef]", so, saying "with au jus", while admittedly awkward, is not as wrong as it seems at first glance.  OK, so maybe I could be an anti-curmudgeon after all. Is there some requirement out there that I be consistent?

But do you say "with a la mode"?

From Fred Wells:

RE: "and etc." and Ken Williams' comment about "with au jus", close but no cigar. Avec is French for "with"; au is French for "in".  But, silly me, I just learned that from a high school friend.

Sorry, Fred, but in this case au is usually translated as "with".  Look at cafe au lait.  You don't say "coffee in milk", do you?  Tell your high school friend to study a bit harder, and don't believe everything you hear (the cardinal rule of critical thinking).

From Richard Hershberger:

In the Sez You page of issue 145, Ken Williams comments on the waitress who asked if he wanted his roast beef sandwich "with au jus", to which you responded with "Aaargh!" While the waitress clearly was not fluent in French, her English was impeccable.  English syntax requires a preposition in that construction. "Au jus" lacks an English preposition, so she provided the one. The fact that there is a French preposition in the phrase is irrelevant, since the construction as a whole has been adopted into English and reanalyzed to fit English syntax. This is a normal process which has occurred innumerable times in the past. It only seems incongruous because it is recent and because some of us have enough knowledge of French to recognize the original syntactical structure.

Again, Barb and Malcolm ask, do you say "apple pie with a la mode"?  They don't agree that the presence of a French preposition is irrelevant.  To be consistent with constructions like "apple pie a la mode", one should not add an English preposition.  The phrase au jus should be treated as an adjective if it isn't going to be parsed as a prepositional phrase.

From Jane Harrington:

Slightly off topic regarding the discussion "and etc" and Ken Williams's comment about "with au juice" I would like to contribute these "Canadianisms" for your enjoyment.

In Canada all labels must be in both official languages. To save space, these labels often use one common word between a French and an English descriptive word. As a result I have heard people refer to "The Jeux Canada Games" (Jeux Canada being the French name for The Canada Games) Another more common one is "old fort cheese" which I admit to using. Old fort cheese has almost become legitimate now. It has been used on the CBC national radio programme "This Morning" at least twice, and if the CBC sanctions it, it must be correct.  Thanks for many amusing discussions.

Thanks, Jane!  All of these are examples of macaronic phrases.  (Clicking on macaronic will take you to the glossary section of Take Our Word For It.)

From Jane Irish Nelson:

In [last] week's Words to the Wise, you wrote that the Welsh word for rabbit is cwningen. I was struck by the apparent resemblance to the Spanish word for rabbit: conejo. Do you know it the two are related?  Thank you! I love words and look forward to visiting your site each week.

Thanks for the kind words!  Read on.

From Jeff Lee:

In Issue 135 of TOWFI, you write:

Of course there are rabbits in Wales! The Welsh word is cwningen (feminine gender, plural is cwningod) but we don't expect many English rabbits would stop at the border just because they can't speak Welsh.

This reminds me of an old joke (from Wits Fittes & Fancies, by Anthony Copley, 1595) which runs:

A manie Schollers went to steale Conies, and by the way they warn'd a nouice among them to make no noise for feare of skarring the Conies away : At last he espying some, said aloud in Latine: "Ecce cuniculi multi." And with that the Conies ranne into their berries : Wherewith his fellowes offended, and chyding him therefore, hee sayd: "Who (the Deu'll) would haue thought that Conies vnderstood Latine".

Out of curiosity, my dictionary indicates that cony derives ultimately from cuniculus. Is the Welsh cwningen related, or is it just a coincidence that they sound so similar?

Yes, all of these rabbit words are related.  The English and Welsh forms come from the Latin, and it is thought that Latin borrowed it from an ancient Iberian language.  Good joke, by the way!

From Brad Daniels:

Your letters on "ATM machine", "PIN number", etc. reminding me of some more common acronym abuse: 

The other day, I received an invitation exhorting me to "please RSVP". "Please respond please?" Now, I know Répondez S'il Vous Plait isn't English, but surely people know RSVP means "please respond". And what about "RAM memory"? Surely, it's obvious that RAM is an acronym (unless there's some new ovine technology out there), and even if you don't know the "Random Access" part, the "M" pretty obviously stands for "Memory".  Hmm... Maybe I wouldn't make a good anti-curmudgeon after all.


From Lt. Maj. Michael Talbert:

I think you treated the one who offered this as the origin of the term golf very kindly... "In Scotland, a new game was invented. It was entitled Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden.... and thus the word GOLF entered into the English language."  ...but have you done so at your own expense? I would have been impressed to hear you point out that none of the words "gentlemen", "only", "ladies", and "forbidden" existed with the familiar meanings at the time the game golf is thought to have been invented. 

We didn't think such explanations necessary.  We already gave the etymology of golf and gave a link back to that discussion.  Going on about how the words that make up the acronym are anachronistic  as far as the word's timeline go would be like beating a dead horse.  Also, we believe that the reader who wrote with that etymology was aware that it was ridiculous and sent it because he knew we'd get a kick out of it.

However, if the modern name golf was only given to the game (however long the game itself existed) in recent enough linguistic times to accommodate the acronym, then your reader may be on to something...  Got a final word on the subject? Love your stuff!

Our final word: golf is not an acronym.  Read our discussion of its etymology.  A very important rule of etymology which we cannot repeat often enough: few English words derive from acronyms (sonar, radar, scuba are some examples); very few derive from acronyms before the 20th century (don't even try to suggest posh!.  We don't count okay as an acronym: if it were one, it would be pronounced "ock"). Read our past discussion of acronyms.

From Simon Rumble:

My main experience with the term Piri Piri has been through the Nando's chain of Portuguese (the chain is actually South African) chicken shops. This link also supports the Portuguese origin:  However as avid colonizers, it's likely that the origin of the term is not Portuguese but one of their colonial victims... er, hosts.

From Alan Wachtel:

Rich Bowen wrote in Issue 145:

I grew up in Kenya, where there is a large Indian community, and a lot of hot food, which we call pilli pilli or piri piri depending on ethnic origin. I had long wondered about the origin of this term, and I can see that it is a mutation of pippali.

The most widely spoken language in Kenya, other than English, is Swahili. It's been a long, long time since I learned Swahili in the Peace Corps, but I still remember that the word for "pepper" is pilipili. It's easy to see how that could become piripiri. However, the term does not seem to have originated in Kenya's Indian community.

The grammar of Swahili is Bantu. Most of its vocabulary is also Bantu, but it borrows many words from Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, German, and English, reflecting the region's trading and colonial history. According to the Oxford "Standard Swahili-English Dictionary," pilipili is derived from a Persian word that I transliterate (with some difficulty, because I don't know the alphabet, and initial, medial, and final forms of letters are different) as plpl (vowels are not shown). Persian is closely related to Sanskrit, and the similarity to Sanskrit pippali is clear.

Plpl immediately reminded me of Hebrew pilpul, a form of Talmudic disputation that involves close examination of minute distinctions. Sure enough, pilpul is the Aramaic word, and cognate to the Hebrew word, for "pepper," from, I'm guessing, either the finely divided nature of the ground spice or its fiery taste. 

From Catherne [sic] Hackett:

[Etc.] is of latin [sic] derivation meaning "and the rest." I don't know why I returned to your site. It's still hopelessly WRONG.

Er... sure.


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Last Updated 01/23/02 09:39 PM