Trivia for geeks: where internet-related words come from

Spam spam spam lovely spam

Have you ever wondered where certain internet-related words come from and why we use them? Like why is spam called spam? And what’s with the term ‘radio’ button – where did that name come from? We’ve put together a list of 10 words and explained their origins, so you can be the ultimate web geek in your office.


Spam is of course digital junkmail  sent to your email, or left in blog comments or forum comments. But it’s also a well-known brand  of canned luncheon meat, and have you ever wondered how the two are related? (Nope? Just us then…)

In the legendary 1970 Spam sketch from the TV comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a café waiter recites a menu that only contains spam and dishes containing spam. As the waiter recites the menu, a chorus of Viking patrons drown out all conversations singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam… lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!”. They in effect ‘spam’ the dialogue. The excessive use of the word ‘spam’ in the sketch was mirrored online in early chatrooms where abusive users would repeat ‘spam’ many times until it scrolled other users’ text off the screen. Since then, the word spam has been used for excessive multiple posting and junk messages.


Blog is an odd word, which means an online diary that’s usually viewable by the public. The word actually comes from a blend of the two words ‘web’ and ‘log’. A web log was the first name for an online diary, and was coined in December 1997 by Jorn Barger. The shortened name ‘blog’ was first used by Peter Merholz who broke it up into the words we blog in 1999. After that, the word ‘blog’ has been used as a verb and a noun, and lead to the word ‘blogger’ and ‘blogging’.

Radio Buttons

These are buttons on web forms that allow you to only choose one of the options you’re given. Have you ever wondered though what they have to do with ‘radio’, that thing you use to listen to music? No reason that you should! But they’re actually named after physical buttons on old car radios, which had a button for each preset station. Pressing one button would make all the others pop out, allowing you to only select one.


A markup language allows us to annotate text in a web page to better communicate specific instructions to the browser for how it should be interpreted. For example in HTML when you want a word to appear more strongly than others, you wrap words in tags like <strong> or <em> to emphasise the text.

The term ‘markup’ comes from the traditional publishing practise of ‘marking up’ a manuscript, which involved adding handwritten annotations on a written document, using certain symbols in the margins that gave instructions to the printer and indicated what typeface, size and style the text should be. This was done by people called ’copy markers’ or ‘markup men’ who then passed this manuscript to the typesetter for printing.


I don’t have to tell you I’m sure, that Twitter is a microblogging social networking website where you can post messages of no more than 140 characters to your followers. But did you know that the original name considered for Twitter was ‘twittr’, inspired by Flickr. The creators changed this to the full word we know now when it was launched in July 2006. Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s creators said this about the name they chose:

“[W]e came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Jack Dorsey


We use the word cyberspace loosely, sometimes meaning the global network of all computers connected via the internet, or as a medium through which people interact online and share information. It originatesfrom a combination of the word cybernetics and space, coined by science fiction writer William Gibson in his 1982 story Burning Chrome, and used again two years later in his more popular novel Neuromancer.

All I knew about the word “cyberspace” when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

William Gibson

Form Field

The word ‘field’ is used as a name for the input areas on an online (or paper based) form. But have you ever thought this was an unusual name?

Apparently, the blank boxes where you enter information are called ‘fields’ because they resemble an open field like a park or a farmer’s field, into which you can plant crops or put animals. Weird!

Surfing the web

It’s a term we might not use so much anymore, but when the internet first came into people’s homes, browsing the web was commonly called ‘surfing’. The name was inspired by the activity usually involved in navigating the web – reading the content of one website, and then following the external links to another website, where you can then follow the links to another, and so on. This is similar to ‘channel surfing’, a term used when you casually change TV channels (probably an ironic term because it requires no athletic ability!) The term was first coined by Jean Armour Polly in 1992.

Silver surfers

Older people surfing the internet are sometimes referred to as ‘silver surfers’, a term that was coined after the internet became widely used and available in most people’s homes, and was adopted by older people as well as young people. The term actually comes from a Marvel comic book hero ‘The silver surfer‘, who surfs the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds, but it was (unflatteringly?) applied to elderly internet users because of their grey hair.


Have you ever wondered where the popular search engine got its name from? It’s actually a deliberate misspelling of the word ‘googol’, a mathematical number meaning 1 followed by 100 zeros. The name of this number was coined by the young nephew of mathematicianEdward Kasner in 1938. Edward asked his 9 year old nephew to think up a name for a very big number, and came up with ‘googol’. He then came up with the name of an even larger number which was a ‘googolplex’.

Google used this word (changing the spelling), when they registered their domain name in 1997.

So there we have it. Are you feeling enlightened? Or are you cursing us for filling your head with a load of useless information?!

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