Software’s Origin

One of the main functions of the venerable and massive Oxford English Dictionary is to record the earliest known use of a word (or sense of a word) in English.

The current edition of the dictionary dates the word software back to 1960, though researchers have discovered an 1850 occurrence of the term in a very different context–for distinguishing two types of garbage, where “soft-ware” referred to matter that would decompose and “hard-ware” to anything else.

An etymologist has now found that use of the term software to describe computer programs dates back to 1958 and first appeared in a mathematics journal.

Librarian Fred R. Shapiro of the Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., searched for the word among scholarly journals electronically archived in the JSTOR (Journal STORage) database at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He hit pay dirt in an article by Princeton University statistics professor John W. Tukey in the January 1958 American Mathematical Monthly.

Titled “The Teaching of Concrete Mathematics,” Tukey’s article contains the following passage:

Today the “software” comprising the carefully planned interpretive routines, compilers, and other aspects of automative programming are at least as important to the modern electronic calculator as its “hardware” of tubes, transistors, wires, tapes and the like.

This sentence appears near the beginning of Tukey’s essay, which presents ideas for making “applied,” or “concrete,” mathematics more intellectually stimulating and attractive to students. Among his recommendations is one to emphasize “the study of computational procedures in their own right by discussing their general properties–the mathematics of computation–rather than merely grinding through them.”

Schooled in chemistry and mathematics, Tukey played a central role in the development of statistics during the middle part of the 20th century. He held posts at both Princeton University and Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. In a 1965 paper with J.W. Cooley, he introduced the fast Fourier transform algorithm, perhaps now the most widely used computational technique for analyzing and manipulating digital or discrete data. He also invented a variety of methods, both graphical and numerical, for statistical applications. John Tukey died on July 26 at the age of 85.

The term software isn’t the only one that put Tukey in the neologistic hall of fame. Known for his penchant for coining apt words and phrases, Tukey is credited with inventing the word bit (binary digit) in 1946, and he was responsible for the first use of several terms in mathematical statistics.

“JSTOR is a gold mine for studying the terminology of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences,” Shapiro notes in the April-June IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. With the rapid growth of electronic journal archives, an even earlier occurrence of the word software may yet surface.

Indeed, the proliferation of new resources, such as JSTOR, has already forced significant revisions in the history of English words, providing new insights into the social and cultural context in which they first appeared. Researchers have discovered that more than a quarter of the language has a longer history than could be demonstrated a century ago.

More Stories from Science News on Math