Metaphors in Computing

From an Old Mouse to a New Mouse

Lexical semantic change induced by metaphor is a cognitively and lexically economic process: complex subject matters are verbalized concisely without a new lexeme being invented. A perfect example to illustrate the process of semantic innovation and lexicalization is the naming of a ‘small, hand-guided electronic device for executing commands in computer programs’ which we today know as mouse (Blank 1999: 71, 2001: 71ff.). According to Blank (2001: 73) the process of innovation and lexicalization takes place in three steps: The first step is the association process. In the example above two concepts are associated with each other on the basis of visual similarity. This is only possible provided that one of the two concepts has already been lexicalized. This example is obviously a one-shot image metaphor: The image of a mouse is superimposed on the image of this very electronic device. Both are small, round and grey and even the wire, connecting the electronic device with the computer, reminds us of the mouse’s tail. The second step is the innovation process which means that the denotation of the already lexicalized item is assigned to the newly associated concept. The electronic device is verbalized through the lexical item mouse. The last step describes the process of both, known and new concept, being subsumed under the same denotation (Dirven 1985: 89). The one lexeme mouse corresponds to two lexicalized meanings or units: ‘little rodent’ and ‘small, hand-guided electronic device for executing commands in computer programs’.[1] At first realized by a small group of speakers this newly innovated meaning spreads into everyday talk. Not only the English common language adopted this new meaning: The resemblance between these two concepts is so evident and convincing that it is universally understood. In turn the new meaning has also been lexicalized in other languages: ger. Maus, fr. souris, etc. Therefore the term mouse ‘electronic device’ can be defined as a universalism (Blank 2001: 71, 1999: 62). Again, this example proves that economic and efficient terms, like metaphors, are more likely to gain acceptance and be lexicalized: the non-metaphorical equivalent computer pointing device is neither economic nor efficient due its length and abstractness and would probably never gain the same (cross-cultural) acceptance as the metaphor mouse which is cognitively optimally processable due to the visual image it is based on. Moreover, the metaphor mouse meets the indented subject matter more precisely since the metaphor only highlights relevant aspects (Bründl 2001: 23, Gévaudan 2007: 99). The transfer of a perceived similarity into a linguistic form (a metaphor) is a creative process in two respects: Firstly, perceiving similarities on the cognitive level, and secondly, the transfer of this cognitive concept into a lexeme metaphor (Bründl 2001: 22, Nöth 1985: 12). As a result the semantic innovation leads to a polysemous lexeme and “polysemy is an essential condition of its [the language’s, LJ] efficiency” (Ullmann 1983: 168). The transfer or mapping that determines the connection of two com­pletely different domains is also named “Kippeffekt”.[2] This term also derives from the field of Gestalt psychology. It literally illustrates the process of metaphorization because it gives us a visual image of shifting an image, semantic features or a whole structure from one concept onto another (Blank 2001: 74f.).

The variety hackers’ jargon offers an analogical extension to mouse: a wireless mouse is called hamster, because it depicts a tailless mouse. In turn, this might lead to a conceptual metaphor like computer pointing devices are little rodents.

[1] Denotational change refers to a gradual loss of motivation and the beginning arbitrariness due to a change of the denotatum (Lipka 1992: 105-06). Concerning mouse a partial denotational change is observable: modern computer mice are related to hands, feet or paws (Bründl 2001: 171).

[2] Koch (1994: 213, emphasis in original) explains: „Ein prägnantes Merkmal (auf dem die Similarität beruht) tritt durch die Interaktion zwischen einem Herkunftsdesignat und einem […] Zieldesignat hervor, und zwar derart, daß in einer Art Kippeffekt das Zieldesignat auf Grund prägnanter Merkmale als das Herkunftsdesignat gesehen wird.“


Blank, Andreas. 1999. Why Do New Meanins Occur? A Cognitive Typology of the Motivations for Lexical Semantic Change. Historical Semantics and Cognition, Peter Koch & Andreas Blank (Eds), 61-89. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Blank, Andreas. 2001. Einführung in die lexikalische Semantik für Romanisten. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Bründl, Monika E. 2001. Lexikalische Dynamik: Kognitiv-linguistische Unter­suchungen am englischen Computerwortschatz. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Dirven, René. 1985. Metaphor as Basic Means for Extending the Lexicon. The Ubiquity of Metaphor, Paprotté & Dirven (Eds), 85-119.

Gévaudan, Paul. 2007. Typologie des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels. Bedeu­tungs­wandel, Wortbildung und Entlehnung am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen. Tübingen: Stauffenberg Linguistik.

Nöth, Winfried. 1985. Semiotic Aspects of Metaphor. The Ubiquity of Metaphor, Paprotté & Dirven (Eds), 1-16.

Ullmann, Stephen. 1983. Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning. Ox­ford: Blackwell.

Metaphors in Computing

Find an Easter Egg

The metaphor Easter egg is closely connected to the metaphors spam and cookie that were subject to recent posts, since they share the same source domain: CULTURAL ASSETS. The conceptual metaphor COMPUTER PARTS/PROGAMS ARE CULTURAL ASSETS always contains quite complex metaphors that need drawing on cultural knowledge to be explained and understood, respectively (Bründl 1999: 192f., 2001: 158f.). Concerning Easter egg the source involved is CUSTOM/TRADITION which is mapped onto the target SOFTWARE PROGRAM.  The primary meaning of Easter egg refers to “an egg that is dyed and sometimes decorated and that is associated with the celebration of Easter” (WNED). For comparison the metaphorical meaning in computing: “A secret feature [, a graphic animation or picture and the like, LJ] hidden within a piece of software by its programmers as a joke or testament to their prowess which […] can be activated by someone who knows a certain key sequence.” (PDC) The mere comparison of the two dictionary entries does not bear an explanation for this metaphor; does not provide an appropriate ground of comparison. It is our cultural knowledge about Western (Christian) traditions that provides the needed information: At Easter it is a costume to hide colorfully painted eggs for (mostly) children to search for and find. In turn, the structural mapping of the metaphor relates to this specific complex scene of searching for and finding Ester eggs and its associated actions and emotions. These associations and feelings are part of certain cultural models that are rooted in our cognition. Lipka (2002: 8, 141) classifies such cases as prototypical scenes. Other substantial features of Easter eggs, like taste or form, are left out of focus, i.e. are hidden. If this very scene is projected onto the SOFTWARE PROGRAM, the metaphorical meaning is quite clear: An Easter egg is hidden by programmers (parent(s)/ Easter bunny). The user needs to figure out the secret key sequence to find the Easter egg (children go around searching). Finally, cracking the code the Ester egg becomes visible (children find and eat the eggs). The feelings involved are excitement, suspense and ultimately, surprise.

It is especially interesting for German speakers to take a look at the German equivalent for Easter egg which is Überraschungsei (‘surprise egg’) refers to “a chocolate egg with a small toy inside which is avail­able in shops all year round” (Bründl 1999: 192). In fact, this term already contains the notion of sur­prise due to its form-side. Therefore, it is even more convenient as a metaphor (but culturally bound).

Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors to come 🙂


Bründl, Monika E. 1999. Cookies, Strudels, and Easter Eggs – (Food) Metaphors in the Language of Computing. Words, Lexemes, Concepts – Approaches to the Lexicon: Studies in Honour of Leonard Lipka, Wolfgang Falkner & Hans-Jörg Schmid (Eds), 161-172. Tübingen: Narr.

Bründl, Monika E. 2001. Lexikalische Dynamik: Kognitiv-linguistische Unter­suchungen am englischen Computerwortschatz. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Lipka, Leonard. 2002. English Lexicology: Lexical Structure, Word Semantics & Word-formation. Tübingen: Narr.


Pountain, Dick. 2001. The New Penguin Dictionary of Computing: An A-Z of Com­puting Jargon and Concepts. London: Penguin. (= PDC)

Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary. 2002. Springfield, MA: Federal Street Press. (= WNED)

Metaphors in Computing

Make It Short And Comprehensible

Due to the computer terminology’s affinity for compounds, the need arises to shorten long sequences of compounded words (Fraas 1998: 436). Hence, abbreviations and acronyms, which are the most frequently used form of abbreviating, are a further characteristic of computer terminology[1]. Barry (1991: 70) states that, according to the US-American Department of Defense, the computer industry exhibits the second largest number of acronyms. Cd (change directory), EXE-file (executable file), ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), MS-DOS (Microsoft Disc Operating System), and BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) are only some selected examples that cross our way dealing with computers. Some acronyms even offer an additional metaphorical meaning, highlighting one major characteristic of the abbreviated compound: BASIC (Beginners Allpurpose Symbolic Instruction Code, also Basic) is “[a] simple interpreted programming language designed for teaching beginners [that, LJ] was the first language made available for personal computers” (PDC), i.e. it is basic for beginners. FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) refers to “[a] computer industry organization founded in the UK to enforce the copyright laws on software and to detect and prosecute software piracy” (PDC), i.e. it acts fast on piracy problems. Acronyms like this are mostly constructed on purpose to create a motivation and achieve the very effect of better memorization and comprehensibility (Barry 1991: 73); that is why Barry names them reverse-engineered acronyms.  Speakers always aim at motivating lexemes (best example is folk-etymological reinterpretation). Reverse-engineered acronyms and their very homonyms are being semantically connected and hence are re-motivated. Acronymic names for new products have already been decided on and afterwards the matching words are adapted to the chosen acronym: VIEW for Visually Oriented Graphics Programming Environment; since the acronym for this would be *VOGPE, which is neither catchy nor easily pronounceable, the following chain of words has been adapted to the chosen acronym: VIEW – Visual/Integrated Environment for Windows (Bründl 2001: 149). Another quite humourous Acronym is TWAIN “[a] standard interface that allows  Windows and Apple Macintosh graphics programs to acquire digital images directly from an external scanner or a digital camera without having to leave the progra.m” (PDC). The letters stand for Toolkit (sometimes also Technology) Without Any Important Name. At the same time this acronym alludes to the eloquent American litterateur and humorist Mark Twain, parodying the  (incomprehensibly) complex nomenclature of computer science (Müller 1999).

Again, these examples show that our thinking and hence our language are highly metaphorical indeed. We create/produce metaphors, even consciously, to conceptualize and verbalize new referents and abstract concepts.

Stay tuned 🙂

[1] The comprehension problems can be met thanks to acronym glossaries on the Internet, such as­docs/­internetworking/terms_acronyms/­­­ita.html [02/10], Kind: http://­­­­tlt/­­­stuff/­­misc/babel.html [02/10]. Also these glossaries demonstrate the large extent of those abbreviations in computer terminology. Bründl (2001: 149) ascertained that acronyms only account for 5,6% of the common language computer vocabulary.


Barry, John A. 1991. Technobabble. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bründl, Monika E. 2001. Lexikalische Dynamik: Kognitiv-linguistische Unter­suchungen am englischen Computerwortschatz. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Fraas, Claudia. 1998. Lexikalisch-semantische Eigenschaften von Fachsprachen. Languages for Special Purposes, Hoffmann et al. (Eds), Vol.1, 428-438.

Müller, Heinrich H. 1999. Die englische Fachsprache der Datenverarbeitung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Lexik. Languages for Special Purposes, Hoffmann et al. (Eds), Vol. 2, 1444-1451.


Pountain, Dick. 2001. The New Penguin Dictionary of Computing: An A-Z of Com­puting Jargon and Concepts. London: Penguin. (= PDC)

Internet Sources

Internetworking Terms and Acronyms. [2/10].

Kind, Irving. A Glossary of Computer Oriented Abbreviations and Acronyms. Version 96C, Sep 1996. [2/10].

Metaphors in Computing

My Computer Is Sick

The computer virus-metaphor is highly productive and obtains a quite complex structure since it gives rise to and is closely interconnected with further conceptual metaphors. The lexeme metaphor virus in its primary meaning refers to:

An infectious organism that is usu. submicroscopic, can multiply only inside certain living host cells (in many cases causing disease) and is now understood to be a non-cellular structure lacking any intrinsic metabolism and usually comprising DNA or RNA core inside a protein coat […] (OED2)

For comparison to the primary meaning the definition of a computer virus follows:

A small computer program that is capable of copying itself from one computer to another, thus emulating a biological virus that infects new hosts. Viruses […] may inflict damage on the computer they infect. […] The most dangerous viruses do not act immediately after infection but often lie dormant for long periods until triggered by some event […] (PDC, emphasis by LJ).

The second definition already points to analogies between the organism virus and the computer virus and additionally gives some metaphorical expressions that were adopted from the source domain (infect, infection). Bründl (2001: 167f.) explains correctly that the lexeme metaphor virus comprises two analogies. Firstly, computers can get infected by viruses just like human beings (or animals) which in turn implies another metaphorical concept: COMPUTERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS. Secondly, the computer virus is a program that works like the biological organism virus and both cause diseases or damage. Thus, COMPUTER PROGRAMS ARE LIVING ORGANISMS is the other conceptual metaphor included. The following illustration will demonstrate the interconnection of the two conceptual metaphors:

living organism (virus)


human being

computer program


Fig. 6: Analogy of Biological Virus and Computer Virus

(adapted from Bründl 2001: 167)

Since the computer virus-metaphor is highly productive it generates plenty of meta­phorical expressions that further prove the perceived structural similarities between the biological organism virus and the computer virus (Fauconnier 1997: 18ff.).

Viruses are covertly implanted into other programs. If a computer infected the viral infection can spread rapidly from computer to computer. Files and other data that are contaminated by infectious bytes can be put under quarantine. Programs called vaccines prevent the computer from getting infected. Other programs disinfect disks or drives. Computer technicians are called physicians since they develop new vaccines and disinfectants. Virus Shield, Dr. Solomon, Dr. Web are programs that diagnose the computer with an infection and sometimes even cure it, i.e. anti-virus software.[1] Just like the living organism virus its virtual equivalents are highly contagious and cause damage. Once infected, humans fall ill and computers do not work properly. Computers can be immune to viruses and are called healthy if they are not infected.[2] Computer viruses may even be named in analogy to living viruses, such as the Pakistan flue (also known as Brain), which is considered the first virus for MS-DOS and named in analogy to the Spanish Flue (a pandemic influenza that spread throughout the world in 1918).[3] Moreover, other malicious programs, like spyware (further explained in 4.3.2), that are also intentionally installed on computers and (are) spread massively can be referred to as epidemics, e.g. China’s spyware epidemic.[4]

All of these metaphorical expressions lead to the computer being further anthropomorphized. Evidently, feature semantics is not sufficient to be applied here: A complete structure from a source (health) is being applied to the target (computer). In the case of the computer virus-metaphor we can speak of an ex­periential basis that provides perceiving structural similarities between the source and the target. We know how viruses work, since probably every human being has experienced the course of a viral infection and disease him- or herself or is familiar with it. Moreover, numerous computer users have fallen victim to a computer virus. Therefore, the computer virus-metaphor is a universal metaphor rather than culturally bound one because it bases on collective experiences and encyclopedic knowledge. All in all, there seems to be virtually no limit to new metaphorical innovations concerning the computer virus-metaphor. Although some expressions might sound unconventional and novel at first, they can be set into context and hence understood.

Cruise virus and stealth virus are types of viruses that are further attributed with a specified meaning. Cruise virus is related to the functioning of a cruise missile. Bründl (2001: 169) connects the stealth virus with the human quality stealth, since this virus hides itself aiming at causing damage without being noticed. But in analogy with cruise virus and cruise missile the name stealth virus might also directly refer to a stealth bomber because it is less visible (ideally invisible) to e.g. radar, infrared or sonar.

Feel free to comment and stay tuned 🙂

[1] [2/10].

[2] If not explicitly stated, all examples for metaphorical expression are taken from Bründl (1999, 2001), Richardt (2004), Fauconnier (1997) and have been verified and extended through internet research.

[3] Further information about the Pakistan flu is provided on the following web pages: Rötzer:­/tp/r4/artikel/21/21831/1.html [2/10],­­wiki/­­Brain_%28computer_virus%29 [2/10].

[4] [2/10].


Bründl, Monika E. 1999. Cookies, Strudels, and Easter Eggs – (Food) Metaphors in the Language of Computing. Words, Lexemes, Concepts – Approaches to the Lexicon: Studies in Honour of Leonard Lipka, Wolfgang Falkner & Hans-Jörg Schmid (Eds), 161-172. Tübingen: Narr.

Bründl, Monika E. 2001. Lexikalische Dynamik: Kognitiv-linguistische Unter­suchungen am englischen Computerwortschatz. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Fauconnier, Gilles. 1997. Mappings in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cam­bridge UP.

Richardt, Susanne. 2004. Metaphor in Languages for Special Purposes: The Function of Conceptual Metaphor in Written Expert Language and Expert-Lay Communication in the Domains of Economics, Medicine and Computing. Frankfurt a.M.: Lang.


Pountain, Dick. 2001. The New Penguin Dictionary of Computing: An A-Z of Com­puting Jargon and Concepts. London: Penguin. (= PDC)

Simpson, John A. & Edmund S.C. Weiner. 1989. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edn., on CD-ROM 1992, Oxford: Oxford UP. (= OED2)

Internet Sources:

Dr. Web: Antivirus. [2/10].

PC Tools. [2/10].

Rötzer, Florian. Telepolis: Die Pakistan-Grippe im Westen. 21 Jan 2006. [2/10].

Wikipedia. Virus. 22 Dec 2009. [2/10].

Metaphors in Computing


Anthropomorphic metaphors constitute the far most considerable part within computer terminology. Bründl (2001: 183) ascertained that anthropomorphic meta­phors account for about 70% of all lexeme metaphors analyzed in her study. I want to give an insight into the complex metaphor COMPUTERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS and its sub-metaphors, respectively. This very conceptual metaphor can also be referred to as the community-metaphor, since anthro­po­morphisms usually imply sociomorphisms, i.e. a computer is regarded as a human and therefore as a social being (Richardt 2004: 198ff.). The first conceptual metaphor dealt with is COMPUTERS ARE TYPES OF HUMAN BEINGS. The lexeme metaphors refer to different types of human beings which are grouped due to their social role or profession. The targets within this complex metaphor are the following: computer types, software programs, hardware components and programming processes. The first examples examined are mappings onto computer types. In computing client and server are defined as follows: A client is

[a] computer connected to a network that obtains some resource or service […] from a server located elsewhere on the network [or, LJ] a program or process that calls upon services provided by another program or process called a server process. (PDC, emphasis by LJ)

A server in turn is

[a] computer that is designed to provide shared services to other computers on a network […]. The most common role for a server is as a file server, to hold data files that can be accessed by many users. [Or it refers to a, LJ] software program that does not interact directly with users, but instead provides services that can be requested by client programs. (PDC, emphasis by LJ)

Clearly, the metaphorical meaning mapped is that a server provides its services to clients who in turn obtain these services, i.e. computers are taking over the roles of human beings. Host and guest are often used synonymously with client and server, whereas host often refers to bigger systems like computers of an internet provider (a host may host servers) (Bründl 2001: 170). Hence, a host provides services for a guest (or client). By contrast, peer-to-peer describes a network architecture in which the computers connected can either act as clients or servers, i.e. the participating computers are equal. A peer-to-peer system is also abbreviated P2P-system. One popular example is Napster; a music file sharing network. Moreover, an even more private network system has been established which is in analogy named friend-to-friend (or short F2F) and literally only allows authenticated access to friends; hence excludes unauthorized users and does not depend on companies. Master and slave is another oppositional pair that clearly depicts a stronger state of dependence: “A relationship between two pieces of hardware or software in which one completely controls the other’s operations.” (PDC, emphasis by LJ)

The next examples deal with professions of human beings being applied to software programs. The doctor-patient-metaphor, which has already been mentioned in connection with the computer virus-metaphor, is detectable in software program names like Disk (or Disc) Doctor or Dr. Watson (actually named after Sher­lock Holmes’ assistant). Those programs diagnose the computer with errors in its system and repair them (Bründl 2001: 168). Spyware Doctor is also a program that detects, removes and blocks malicious software (so-called spyware), i.e. it cures the computer.[1] This example entails another one: The name spyware includes another human profession, namely being a spy. Spyware programs typically hide their presence from the user and are difficult to detect. They collect information about the user, such as personal information or Internet surfing activities, without being noticed. Furthermore, spyware can be installed on purpose in order to secretly observe users, .i.e. such programs spy on users. Further instances of personified software pro­grams are agents, assistants (often a feature of a program), managers, messengers or security officers/guards and so on. There are almost inexhaustibly many meta­phors of this kind, which map the societal division of labour onto the distribution of functions and tasks within and around the computer.

Since the whole, far-reaching COMPUTERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS metaphor is evidently a very productive structural metaphor, it is not surprising that in turn human activities/qualities/reactions are mapped onto that of a computer as well. Therefore, a selection of metaphorical terms will be given: A computers reads programs or disks, writes to a media (disks, drives), learns languages, remembers saved files, and thinks (“My computer thinks a data CD is blank“). It speaks or talks, hears and sees, calculates, and communicates with other computers. Computers can be described as being stubborn, dumb or smart, intelligent, friendly, helpful, and so on. Just like an overstressed or ill human being, computers can collapse or break down.

Obviously, the metaphor COMPUTERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS and the exemplification of its sub-metaphors (including the computer virus-metaphor, which will be explained in a future post) proves that multiple struc­tural mappings from several subordinated sources of human beings onto several sub­ordinated targets of computer have been established. The choice of metaphorical expressions seems unlimited since the personification of the computer is that well-entrenched. On the whole, it is justified to speak of an anthropocentrism within the field of computing (Bründl 2001: 183, Dirven 1988: 337ff.).

…and that is why many of the following posts may deal with this very topic, therefore: stay tuned 🙂

[1] Software developers often amplify their personified programs with icons that, in these cases, portray a doctor: [2/10].


Bricklin, Dan. Dan Bricklin’s Website: Friend-to-Friend Network. 11 Aug 2000. [2/10].

Bründl, Monika E. 2001. Lexikalische Dynamik: Kognitiv-linguistische Unter­suchungen am englischen Computerwortschatz. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

CD Rom-Guide.­ [2/10].

Dirven, René. 1988. A Cognitive Approach to Conversion. Understanding the Lexicon: Meaning, Sense and World Knowledge in Lexical Semantics, Werner Hüllen & Rainer A.I. Schulze (Eds), 329-340. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

PC Tools. [2/10].

Pountain, Dick. 2001. The New Penguin Dictionary of Computing: An A-Z of Com­puting Jargon and Concepts. London: Penguin. (= PDC)

Wikipedia: Spyware. 5 Mar 2010. [2/10].