We were copied on this interesting e-mail discussion.
From Richard Steinberg/Mr. Smarty Pants (The Austin Chronicle):
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
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
daemon.co.uk, 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
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
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
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).
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
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
Thanks for the kind words!
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
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...
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
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.