The word "Cruft"

According to the Media course I did back in first year, there’s a fine line between Jargon and Technical Terminology, jargon being more informal. Amongst geeks, technical terminology makes communication possible, and jargon makes our lives easier. To anyone else, it makes us sound like “geek”s, but we are generally ok with that.

When we say “webserver daemon” or “apache httpd” to each other, we mean “the piece of software running on the computer that gives web-pages to anyone who asks for them”. We don’t want to say things like that to each other (it’d take years to say anything), but we often need to break terms down like that when talking to people from other worlds (fields).

Technical, computer-jargon isn’t the only type of jargon, either, there’s legalese jargon, mathematical jargon, medical jargon, literary jargon, etc etc.

Just like normal English, we all know a large enough subset of our jargon that we can understand each other even if we don’t know the odd specific term, but every now and then we have to refer to a dictionary.

Of course to be able to speak amongst ourselves and to the world at large, we need to know where the lines are between technical terminology, jargon, and normal English. Sometimes, we get this wrong. A housemate called me on it today, asking what I meant when I was describing something as “crufty”. I was incredulous - was cruft not a standard, everyday word? Is it just me, or do other geeks regard “cruft” as being a normal English word? It hardly sounds technical, it sounds like something you’d find on the corner a carpet, that we abused as a metaphor for unmaintained messy bits of computing.

A quick google (note “to google” is no longer jargon) took me to the Jargon file entry stating a very geeky etymology:

  1. Poorly built, possibly over-complex. The canonical example is “This is standard old crufty DEC software”. In fact, one fanciful theory of the origin of crufty holds that was originally a mutation of ‘crusty’ applied to DEC software so old that the ‘s’ characters were tall and skinny, looking more like ‘f’ characters.

This term is one of the oldest in the jargon and no one is sure of its etymology, but it is suggestive that there is a Cruft Hall at Harvard University which is part of the old physics building; it’s said to have been the physics department’s radar lab during WWII. To this day (early 1993) the windows appear to be full of random techno-junk. MIT or Lincoln Labs people may well have coined the term as a knock on the competition.

On a similar note, how many other people only discovered the word “segue” after hearing about the Segway Personal Transporter? (Hint: “segue” is pronounced “seg-way”) It certainly seems to have become a much more popular word to use since the launch of the Segway.

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