February 21, 2006

Ping ding

To Roger Shuy's list of maxims for would-be linguistic experts (be informative, be relevant, be sincere, be clear), we can add one more, which Roger took for granted, but William Safire too often ignores: be careful. Don't assert, in an authoritative voice, something that anyone with an internet connection and 15 seconds of spare time can discover to be wrong.

As Language Hat notes, Safire's 2/19/2006 On Language column asserts that

A ping is not just the word for a sound anymore. It is also an acronym for "packet Internet gopher," a program that tests whether a destination is online ...

Hat links to a LiveJournal post by Jonquil Serpyllum, who typed {ping history} into Google and found, as the top link, "The Story of the PING Program", by Mike Muuss, whose second line says

I named it after the sound that a sonar makes, inspired by the whole principle of echo-location. In college I'd done a lot of modeling of sonar and radar systems, so the "Cyberspace" analogy seemed very apt. It's exactly the same paradigm applied to a new problem domain: ping uses timed IP/ICMP ECHO_REQUEST and ECHO_REPLY packets to probe the "distance" to the target machine.

If Safire's research assistant had wanted to do more than 15 seconds of research on this topic, (s)he might have looked in the OED, which would explain that before being adopted by WWII sonar operators, the word ping started life as "An abrupt ringing sound, such as that made by a rifle bullet in flying through the air, by a mosquito, the ringing of an electric bell, etc.", with citations from 1835 onward:

1835 J. E. ALEXANDER Sk. Portugal xi. 262 If a button was shown, ‘ping’ went a bullet at it immediately.
1909 KIPLING Rewards & Fairies (1910) 272 Ping-ping-ping went the bicycle bell round the corner.

(Note, by the way, these lovely precursors of quotative go.)

I've defended William Safire more than once. But he sometimes gets simple things wrong, where a quick glance at an easily-available reference work like the OED would reveal the truth. In fairness to Safire (or more properly, to his research assistant), {"packet internet gopher"} gets 684 hits, including some things that purport to be glossaries of internet terms. The second item on today's results debunks the false etymology, but the mistake is a widespread one.

I haven't been able to find out who was originally responsible for the mistake. It seems likely to have started as a joke that someone took seriously, or perhaps a mnemonic device that escaped from captivity.

[Update: many readers have pointed out that the Jargon File entry for ping, along with many other sources, makes it clear that the apocryphal acronym should be `Packet INternet Groper', not 'Packet INternet Gopher'. In other words, the claimed "gopher" etymology is not only wrong, it's also wrong, as is clearly indicated by the Google counts (84,900 for "groper" compared to 684 for "gopher").

More than one correspondent suggested that gopher might have been substituted for groper out of prudery; and several also observed that there was a pre-web document search and retrieval protocol call gopher, now almost extinct, which may have played a role in this bit of malapropic comstockery. Finally, the indefatigable Ben Zimmer observes that

Dave Mills (mentioned by Mike Muuss) claims to have coined ping = "Packet InterNet Groper" in 1979, documentable from 1980:


If true, that would predate the Muuss usage by a few years.

Most people's usage -- including mine -- stems from the unix ping program, which Muuss wrote, so I guess that even if his coinage is somewhat later, it still counts as the basic one, at least for people like me: I've been using "ping" since the mid-1980s, figuring that it was named about the sonar pulse, and I never knew about the groper/gopher business until today. And even Mills' acronym must originally have started with the goal of finding a phrase whose first(ish) letters would echo the sonar "ping".]

[Update #2: Several other readers have pointed out that if Safire's research assistant had checked the AHD entry for ping, (s)he would have found the etymology given as "p(acket) in(formation) g(roper)", which is contested but at least historical, as opposed to "... g(opher)", which is entirely bogus. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 21, 2006 06:36 AM