The strange Origin of Gadget Terms

Posted by admin on Jul 6, 2011 in geekery, lists, technology |

‘Names are an important key to what a society values.  Anthropologists recognize naming as one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception,’ said David  Slawson, and this holds true to most things in society. A name denotes place, culture, idea- and the likes of Gucci and Manolo Blahnik have profited by associating their name with an idea of luxury and quality. Many of us willingly use names without any idea of the origins of the words, and as many words have a rich cultural history, I wanted to examine the etymology of some of the most commonly used gadget terms. Technology is a rich landscape of strange beginnings- did you know that the term mouse was created as the peripheral chased an ‘on screen cat or that boondoggle can be used to refer to your gadgets?

Read on to discover the origins of Top Ten technology terms.

1. Geek

People use the term geek to denote many things nowadays, from people who wear glasses to those who have an uncanny knowledge about the ISO ratings on cameras. Add tech know how to that list, an in depth knowledge of sci-fi, and well, you see where I’m going here. The origin of the word is a little stranger though, with its roots in 1916 USA slang, where the term referred to a ‘sideshow freak’ who was well known for biting the heads of chickens. Yes, chickens.

The word also has roots back in 1510 where it was an imitative verb in Scandinavian which meant to ‘mock and cheat’. Quite how chicken biting sideshows artists and Scandinavian cheaters turned into the modern day geek I’m unsure- perhaps just a predilection for the unusual?

2. Gamer

The term gamer is synonymous nowadays with XBOX/Playstation/Warcraft addicts, but it has really only had this association since 1999. The word is a shortened version of Gamester, with the first recording of this term being in 1590. It didn’t mean someone who was particularly good at egg and spoon,  but rather a prostitute. You could read into this that prostitution was ‘the first game ever played’, or that they were ‘game’ for anything. It later was used to refer to gambling, and so we learn the seedy past of today’s mainstream term.

(It was also sometimes used to refer to a swan keeper which is a nicer way to look at it…).

3. Computer Mouse

We’re all used to using the mouse on a daily basis, happily clicking away and never giving it a second thought.  When you think about it though, it seems rather strange- the likeness between a real live mouse and a computer peripheral pretty distant friends. What’s the source of the name then? Created in 1964 by Douglas Ebert of Stanford, the name was created because the tool chased the cursor on the screen. What was this cursor then referred to? The CAT.  Sure, it might have made more sense were the terms reversed, but history  is what it is, and this is why the peripheral is known as the mouse. If the onscreen cursor had been named something like XQY555 we’d probably have a totally different name for this device.

4. Wireframe

A term commonly used by web designer, this name has roots in the late 14th century where it was originally called a screen. We have a record from 1895 where the term “net-wire frame used in windows and doors” was used. In 1810 this meant ‘flat surface for reception of projected images’ (from magic lantern shows) and this later went on to refer to films, with the word ‘screenplay’ being used in 1916. Then came screen test, screen writer and this turned into the idea of a shield/way to view things, which ultimately turned into today’s wireframe.

5. Car

The word car has its roots in Latin, where it was originally Carrus. Carrus denotes a vehicle  that carries baggage and has four wheels, and this term also comes from the Celtic Gaulish language, where Karros means a two wheeled Celtic war chariot. This term evolved into carriage in English and was shortened to car with the advent of the automobile.

6.  The Blower, a.k.a the telephone

The Talker, the Chatter, the Voice box- all these terms make sense in light of today’s telephone, so how did the term ‘blower’ fall into the vernacular? Before telephones used alternating current to create a bell, anyone who went online would whistle or blow into the mouthpiece to alert the operator they were on the line.

7. Cellular Phone

Commonly known as a mobile phone in the UK, Cellphone is the common term in the USA. There’s a rather basic explanation for this; the handsets are connected through a cellular network which consists of switching points and base stations. Hexagons are the shape of cells, and within this area you’ll connect to a base station. Cellular area=cellphone.

8. Robot

The term Robot has its roots in Czech, where it was originally ‘robota’ which means drudgery and ‘robotnik’ which meant slave. It was first used in English in a translation of a Karl Capek play called  “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Not only did this introduce the term robot to the English language, but also Rossum- think the Dollhouse and the evil Rossum corporation…  The play was about a factory that made artificial people that worked for humans.. and then rebelled. Yup, pretty much set the tone for all robot movies EVER (Terminator/ A.I. etc).

The term ‘bot; is short for robot and has its origins in 1520 where it meant a ‘worm or maggot’. Nowadays the term means any kind of mechanical machine that can perform tasks without guidance- and sometimes refers to humans who are emotionless and mechanical as well.

9. Gadget

How could I leave out his most common term from my list? The term gadget is used to refer to any type of techie AND non techie device that does ‘things’. By this I infer all sorts of usefulness and cleverness to the phrase, from specially created scissors to high tech laptops.

The word is a funny one, as its exact definition is literally a ‘thing whose named cannot be remembered’. Other options for the term include ‘thingamajig, doohickey, boondoggle and hickie.

The origins of gadget *might* be the 1850’s sailor slang ‘gadjet’ which meant any small mechanical part of a ship, and came from the French term  gâchette, which means  “catchpiece of a mechanism” . Whangdoodle was another term for gadget, and this meant ‘a thing for which the correct name is not known’. I quite like all these terms and as all are as correct as eachother I think I might just start using whangdoodle in everyday life..


The term ping is part of the  new tech vernacular where we happily ping each other messages and photos without a second thought. The term hasa  dark history though- a Ping was coined in 1835 where it was considered the sound of  ‘a bullet striking something sharply’. It’s now used to refer to electronic sendings- and ping pong!


So there you have it, the rather strange beginning of some of today’s most prevalent terms.

Just a shame all of them violated Bill Cosby’s guide to naming, ‘Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry’.

With thanks to Wordnik and Etymology Online.

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