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shameless pleading

Hardware and software

Welcome to Microsoft Irony 6.0

Dear Word Detective: I spent the whole day yesterday rummaging about in libraries trying to find out where the terms “hardware” and “software” came from — the irony of having to browse through stacks of dusty old books while looking for information about computers did not escape me, I assure you. Any ideas? — Michael Raynor.

Sure, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s dump all the computers in the ocean. Then we’ll have plenty of time to dust all those old books, and possibly even to read them. This may sound a bit odd coming from someone who just wrote a book called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet, but I’ll take a good book over a computer any day. Books are genuine magic — computers are just annoying, and often useless, appliances. Nothing but overgrown toasters with attitude. Pull the plug, I say. I hope the computer I’m typing this on isn’t paying attention.

While “hardware” has meant “the mechanical equipment necessary for conducting an activity” (to quote the Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary) since the early 16th century, use of the word to mean “computer equipment” is, obviously, a bit more recent. The folks at Random House date this sense to sometime between 1955 and 1960, although the Barnhart Dictionary of New English pegs it quite precisely to 1947. Perhaps they are using different software.

“Software,” meaning the programs (which are really just very complex sets of instructions) used to make computers do all the, ahem, marvelous things they do, arose at about the same time as the computer sense of “hardware.” “Software” was a genuine neologism — an entirely new word — as opposed to “hardware,” which was just a new meaning for an existing word. There’s nothing particularly soft and fluffy about “software.” It’s just “soft” in the sense that it’s less tangible and more malleable than the hardware it runs on.

The linguistic success of “hardware” and “software” have led to other terms based on the “ware” model, such as “firmware” (software permanently installed in a computer’s read-only memory, or ROM), and “wetware,” a remarkably unpleasant slang term for the human brain.

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