by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.

polykut n. Many boxes, especially connected together to form a system; substitute term for system made up of more than one assemblage or subsystem. Unused coinage.

Last time I looked, the U.S. Patent office issued the four-millionth patent.  Must be more than five million by now.  And about twice that worldwide.  Now, each patent has some number of "claims," each being, in effect, an invention, say five per patent.  That means -- oh, my! -- inventions in the tens of millions, and there may be that many more not patented.

But there are fewer than 39,000 words in the English Language.  Which means we like to think up gadgets more than words.  Consider the computer, which has affected our lives in more ways than you can shake a floppy disk at.  Indeed, the twentieth century may well be remembered most for the "computer age."  That's a well deserved historical claim, if you asked me.  It sure beats the other candidates: jet age, atomic age, space age, information age, communications age -- each of which depends in varying degrees upon the computer.  And the computer depends upon software.  Hey!  It's the "software age." Yet, for all of that, the computer has given us but one new word!

Granted, you find plenty of technical terms made up from obvious combinations:

alphanumeric, backwiring, bistable, breakpoint, daisywheel, diskette, downtime, fan-out, floating-point, flying-head, multiprogramming, multiprocessing, precompiler, readout, subroutine, subsystem, teleprinter, teleprocess, uptime.
There is "throughput," which combines the ideas of "input" and "output" but might just as well have come from industrial engineering, process control, or digestive physiology.
"Software," a less obvious combination of words, started out as a term of distinction -- from "hardware."  I ought to know; I was there (see Provenance for the Word "Software").   Admittedly, it has come to have more meaning -- and meanings, replacing "textbook" in some circles (since replaced by "docuware").  "Bugware" (software for finding bugs in software) never caught on.  "Debugger," kind of a double negative, did.  "Firmware" -- software that resides in ROM (read-only-memory) and so does not change, get it? -- has already fallen into disuse, replaced ironically by "software" (see Software Does Not Fail).
There are abbreviations galore: CPU, LRU, I/O.   And computers have given us enough acronyms to shame the Pentagon: FORTRAN, BASIC, JOVIAL.

The trio "macro," "micro," "mini"  were respectively shortened from "macrocommand," "microprocessor," "minicomputer."   They hardly qualify as fresh, new words.

  • "Automation" doesn't need a computer (check the loom and movable-type press).
  • "Cybernetics" came from "feedback" controls (check your thermostat and toilet tank).
  • "Modem," as everyone knows, is a contraction (modulator/demodulator) borrowed from telephony, and
  • "CRT" (cathode ray tube) came from instrumentation technology, long before computers -- before TV, for that matter.
Computers are not alone in being deprived of inventive language.  When it comes to words, technology prefers adoption to conception.
  • The bicycle acquired its "pedals" from the piano.
  • Early engines, their "pistons" from the trombone.
  • The airplane got its "empennage" from the tail feathers of the arrow and its "fuselage" from the sewing thimble.
  • Engines did give us "tachometer" for "speed-of-rotation indicator."
  • From aviation we receive the world "aileron" in place of something like "control surface for banking."
So from computers, what do we get?
Now, every decade or so, I try to do my part.  Consider three cases.

First, in the middle fifties, I built a box that was used to test computer input/output channels.  It was black of course.  The computer simply would output a byte to the thing and input the byte for comparison.  A wag in the lab called the device a "goes-outer-then-right-back-inner."  Ah, come on, I thought.

For that decade, "hermaphrobyte" was my contribution to the language.
Second, in the middle sixties, I worked with Ben Wang on one of the first "variable speed" computer tape systems.  Instead of mechanically troublesome "pinch rollers," it used an innovative "single-capstan" drive.  Break-through.  Our joint patent had 104 claims in it, including a means for clocking data in synchrony with tape motion.  Marketing requested a descriptive product name.  I thought a long time.  Nothing.  Nevertheless, I wrote a two-page memorandum which contained a solemn proposal.
With a straight face, I showed Ben Wang the memo.  I don't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I'll never forget the expression on his face as his eyes fell on my proposed name, "Monocapstrobing Thing."  His smile morphed into a frown.  "Too long," he said, ever the diplomat.
Third, in the middle seventies, I tried to coin the word "polykut" from Greek roots meaning "many boxes," intended to relieve the "definitional overload" on the word "systems," but which, like holomorph, did not catch on.
Listen up, world.  These words and others are here, patiently waiting for the moment you finally recognize your need for them.

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