Jargon File

Jargon File

The Jargon File is a glossary of computer programmer slang. The original Jargon File was a collection of terms from technical cultures such as the MIT AI Lab, the Stanford AI Lab (SAIL) and others of the old ARPANET AI/LISP/PDP-10 communities, including Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Carnegie Mellon University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.


1975 to 1983

The Jargon File (hereinafter referred to as "jargon-1" or "the File") was made by Raphael Finkel at Stanford in 1975. From this time until the plug was finally pulled on the SAIL computer in 1991, the File was named "AIWORD.RF[UP,DOC]" ("[UP,DOC]" was a system directory for "User Program DOCumentation" on the WAITS operating system). Some terms, such as frob and some senses of moby, are believed to date back to the early 1960s from the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT.[citation needed] The revisions of jargon-1 were all unnumbered and may be collectively considered "version 1". Note that it was always called "AIWORD" or "the Jargon file", never "the File"; the latter term was coined by Eric Raymond.

In 1976, Mark Crispin, having seen an announcement about the File on the SAIL computer, FTPed a copy of the File to the MIT AI Lab. He noticed that it was hardly restricted to "AI words" and so stored the file on his directory, named as "AI:MRC;SAIL JARGON" ("AI" lab computer, directory "MRC", file "SAIL JARGON"). However, jargon is a misnomer; the editors of the file have always tried to avoid the inclusion of strict computer jargon (i.e., technical terms), favoring instead slang used by hackers.[citation needed]

Raphael Finkel dropped out of active participation shortly thereafter and Don Woods became the SAIL contact for the File (which was subsequently kept in duplicate at SAIL and MIT, with periodic resynchronizations).

The File expanded by fits and starts until 1983. Richard Stallman was prominent among the contributors, adding many MIT and ITS-related coinages.

In 1981, a hacker named Charles Spurgeon got a large chunk of the File published in Stewart Brand's CoEvolution Quarterly (issue 29, pages 26–35) with illustrations by Phil Wadler and Guy Steele (including a couple of Steele's Crunchly cartoons). This appears to have been the File's first paper publication.

A late version of jargon-1, expanded with commentary for the mass market, was edited by Guy Steele into a book published in 1983 as The Hacker's Dictionary (Harper & Row CN 1082, ISBN 0-06-091082-8). It included all of Steele's Crunchly cartoons. The other jargon-1 editors (Raphael Finkel, Don Woods, and Mark Crispin) contributed to this revision, as did Stallman and Geoff Goodfellow. This book (now out of print) is hereafter referred to as "Steele-1983" and those six as the Steele-1983 coauthors.

1983 to 1990

Shortly after the publication of Steele-1983, the File effectively stopped growing and changing. Originally, this was due to a desire to freeze the file temporarily to ease the production of Steele-1983, but external conditions caused the "temporary" freeze to become permanent.

The AI Lab culture had been hit hard in the late 1970s by funding cuts and the resulting administrative decision to use vendor-supported hardware and associated proprietary software instead of homebrew whenever possible. At MIT, most AI work had turned to dedicated Lisp machines. At the same time, the commercialization of AI technology lured some of the AI Lab's best and brightest away to startups along the Route 128 strip in Massachusetts and out West in Silicon Valley. The startups built LISP machines for MIT; the central MIT-AI computer became a TWENEX system rather than a host for the AI hackers' beloved ITS.

The Stanford AI Lab had effectively ceased to exist by 1980, although the SAIL computer continued as a computer science department resource until 1991. Stanford became a major TWENEX site, at one point operating more than a dozen TOPS-20 systems, but by the mid-1980s most of the interesting software work was being done on the emerging BSD Unix standard.

In May 1983, the PDP-10-centered cultures that had nourished the File were dealt a death-blow by the cancellation of the Jupiter project at DEC. The File's compilers, already dispersed, moved on to other things. Steele-1983 was partly a monument to what its authors thought was a dying tradition; no one involved realized at the time just how wide its influence was to be.[citation needed]

As mentioned in some editions:[1]

By the mid-1980s the File's content was dated, but the legend that had grown up around it never quite died out. The book, and softcopies obtained off the ARPANET, circulated even in cultures far removed from MIT's; the content exerted a strong and continuing influence on hackish slang and humor. Even as the advent of the microcomputer and other trends fueled a tremendous expansion of hackerdom, the File (and related materials like the AI Koans in Appendix A) came to be seen as a sort of sacred epic, a hacker-culture Matter of Britain chronicling the heroic exploits of the Knights of the Lab. The pace of change in hackerdom at large accelerated tremendously, but the Jargon File passed from living document to icon and remained essentially untouched for seven years.

1990 and later

A new revision was begun in 1990, which contained nearly the entire text of a late version of jargon-1 (a few obsolete PDP-10-related entries were dropped after consultation with the editors of Steele-1983). It merged in about 80% of the Steele-1983 text, omitting some framing material and a very few entries introduced in Steele-1983 that are now only of historical interest.

The new version cast a wider net than the old Jargon File; its aim was to cover not just AI or PDP-10 hacker culture but all of the technical computing cultures in which the true hacker-nature is manifested. More than half of the entries now derive from Usenet and represent jargon now current in the C and Unix communities, but special efforts have been made to collect jargon from other cultures including IBM PC programmers, Amiga fans, Mac enthusiasts, and even the IBM mainframe world.

Eric S. Raymond maintains the new File with assistance from Guy Steele, and is the credited editor of the print version, The New Hacker's Dictionary. Some of the changes made under his watch have been controversial; early critics accused Raymond of unfairly changing the file's focus to the Unix hacker culture instead of the older hacker cultures where the Jargon File originated. Raymond has responded by saying that the nature of hacking had changed and the Jargon File should report on hacker culture, and not attempt to enshrine it.[2] More recently, Raymond has been accused of adding terms reflecting his own politics and vocabulary.[3]



  • Guy L. Steele, Eric S. Raymond, eds. (1996). The New Hacker's Dictionary (3rd ed.). MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-68092-0. 

External links

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