Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Bite My Byte

                                                                  George Boole

On yesterday’s radio program, the idea of small quantities and the words that express them came up. They included words such as

  • tad    [1940]  a small amount. Possibly from tadpole, the early stage of a frog or toad.
  • skosh    [1951] a small amount. From the Japanese sukoshi, a little or short. The word was picked up by soldiers stationed in the orient.
  • dab [1729] a small or trifling amount. From a dialectical use of the word that meant a slight blow or slap with the back of the hand. 
  • smidgeon  [1845] a small amount. Possibly a variation of smitch [1840], a particle or bit.
  • bit  [1200]  a small amount (of food). From bite.
  • jot [1526] a very small amount.  From iota, the smallest Greek letter.
  • speck [1400] A small or minute particle of something. From the Dutch speckle, a speck.
  • nip [1736] a small quantity (of spirits). Possibly from the Dutch nippen, to sip.
  • scintilla [1686] a minute particle. From the Latin scintilla, a minute particle.
  • mite [1375] an insignificant amount. Figurative use of a Dutch word that meant a small coin of low value.
  • shred [1000] a scrap or fragment. From a Frisian word meaning a clipping from a coin.
  • ort [1325] a scrap or fragment (of food). From a Frisian word meaning fodder left by cattle.

The mention of bit being derived from bite prompted listeners Hugh, Chris, and Dave to bring up the word byte, a group of eight consecutive bits operated on as a unit in a computer. In 1956, IBM’s Werner Buchholz came up with the spelling byte to avoid confusion with bit or bite.

They also pointed out that computer logic was Boolean, raising the question, where did that adjective come from? Aristotle’s classic version of logic was based on two types of propositions: true or false. George Boole wrote a book in 1854 with the lengthy title, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which Are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. He laid the foundations of Boolean algebra, which transposed Aristotle’s true/false into 1/0. Boole had no way of knowing that this concept would lead, a century later, to computer operations.

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