This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Posts feature. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.


A Way With Words

Even if you've never heard of John W. Tukey, who died last month at the age of 85, you've probably heard a couple words he coined: "software" and "bit."

The Princeton University statistician, who had a way with words as well as numbers, is credited with the first formal use of "software" in a scientific journal, the American Mathematical Monthly in 1958.

The origin of "bit," is, well, a bit more disputed. Online sources trace its first use back to various dates in the 1940s, but it seems Tukey first coined it at a conference convened by mathematician Norbert Wiener during World War II. The word didn't appear in print until 1948, when Claude E. Shannon attributed it to Tukey in his paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication."

"Bit" was meant to replace "bigit" - but the latter did not go quietly into the linguistic night. In the early 1970s, physicist Edward Teller spoke at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in Livermore, Calif., and deemed an 8-bit computer adequate for any computation. But the word "bit" never crossed Teller's lips; he said "bigit" every time.

Among true tech cognoscenti, Tukey's lexical legacy stretches even further. He co-invented and named the Fast Fourier Transform, an algorithm in wide use wherever analog waves need to be represented digitally, or vice versa. He also contributed to and named the fields of linear programming and exploratory data analysis. - Keith Dawson