Terabyte: a “monstrous” amount of data

Last week, the Panama Papers leaked 2.6 terabytes of data. That adds ups to 11.5 million confidential documents about the secret, and potentially scandalous, offshoring of wealth across the globe. That’s a lot of information. You might even call it a “monstrous” amount, if you look to the origin of the prefix tera

Monsters and marvels 

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests terabyte in 1982, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted the scientific prefix tera-, or tira- in its original French, in 1947. As the OED cites: “The following prefixes to abbreviations for the names of units should be used to indicate the specified multiples or sub-multiples of these units: T tira- 1012 ×.” One of the earliest usages, as far as I can tell, is teracycle, in reference to some very fast frequencies.

The IUPAC also gave the temporary names to some newly discovered elements, including ununtrium and ununpentium, as I discussed earlier this year.

To acknowledge the sheer size of this prefix quantifies, IUPAC scientists looked to a Greek word: τέρας, or teras. According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary,  the ancient Greek teras had two main meanings: 1) a “sign,” “wonder,” or “marvel,” as of the heavens; and 2) a “monster,” like a  giant serpent of the sea. The connecting sense appears to be “awe-inspiring size.”

The Modern Greek edition of Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast translates “beast” with our focal Greek word,  teras. Image from greekshops.com.

We see a similar sense development in a prodigy, which, as in its original Latin prodigium, named both a “portent” and a “monster.” Perhaps we can imagine the ancients – and ourselves – trying to make meaning out out of some sublime but terrifying storm or creature, as Edmund Burke philosophized.

Tera-ble words 

English, as did Ancient Greek, used tera- (or its genitive τερατ-, terat-) as a combining form to make new words. Apparently a nonce usage, English scholar John Spencer used teratoscopy, or “augury from prodigies,” in his 1665 Discourses Concerning Prodigies, as the OED records. We see a teratology, a “tale about something marvelous,” in Edwards Phillips’s 1678 New World of Words, an early English dictionary. By the 1720s, something teratical “resembled a monster.”

By 1842, biologists applied teratology to the “study of physiological abnormalities,” which reminds us that we once referred to such conditions as “monstrosities.” Terata, teratogen, teratoma, and teratogenesis developed as other scientific terms referring to various physiological abnormalities.

For Indo-European scholars, the Greek teras has its lexical lair in the Proto-Indo-European *kwer-, “to make.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) cites cognates in the Sanskrit karma (literally “something made,” hence an “act”) as well as the very word Sanskrit (“well-formed”). Barnhart’s etymological dictionary, among others, cites Balto-Slavic relatives meaning “sorcery” and “spell.”

What is the sense development from “make” to “monster”? As the AHD suggests, a monster can “make” harm – or cause destruction.

Super-sized storage

Terabytes aren’t the only “monsters” terrorizing computer technology. The giga- in gigabyte is also borrowed from the Greek. Here, γίγας, or gigas, originally one of the superhuman “giants” the Olympian gods overthrew. English ultimately gets its word giant from this Greek root. Like terabyte, giga- was adopted by the IUPAC in 1947, this prefix signifying 109, an order of magnitude of one billion.

According to some accounts,  computer scientist Werner Buchholz coined byte in 1956. A byte contains 8 bits of digital information; bit is shortened from binary digit. Byte apparently, nods to this bit and plays with bite  (appropriately enough for this discussion of monsters). Megabyte appears by 1965, kilobyte by 1970, if the OED is any measure.

Clearly, as computer memory increased, so did the need for ever-larger prefixes, hence the super-sized gigabyte and terabyte of the 1980s. (And up from a terabyte is a petabyte, but I’m not going to take that bait.)

A terabyte is indeed a “monstrous” amount of data. But the real monsters, many fear, are lurking in the shadowy, financial underworld of the offshore accounts, shell companies, and tax havens the Panama Papers may just bring to light.

m ∫ r ∫

Why is it called “virtual” reality?

This week, Oculus VR released the Rift, the first virtual reality headset of its kind. But why is virtual reality called virtual? Let’s put on our, er, etymological goggles for this one; I promise it’ll be immersive. 

Virtue, mansplained

Today, we associate virtue with moral rectitude, often citing specific qualities like charity, patience, and temperance in contrast to vices like greed, gluttony, or taking selfies. English has been practicing this ethical virtue since the early 13th century, borrowing the word from the French vertu and the Latin virtus before that.

On a literal level, Latin’s virtus meant “manliness” or “manhood.” Indeed, at its root is vir, or “man.” The –tus was a noun-forming suffix, much like the very -hood we see in manhood. English derives the adjective virile from Latin’s vir. Viral and virulent are not related – by etymology, at least.

For its word for “man,” Old English used wer, a cognate of vir, which explains the were– in werewolf, literally a “man-wolf.” Wer is also related to world, a Germanic construct originally signifying a very anthropocentric planet Earth in “the age of man.”

The Irish fer or Welsh gwr are other notable relatives of vir and wer. For all this bromance, Indo-European scholars reconstruct the root *wi-ro, often used of warriors and slaves (i.e., captured warriors), itself derived from a base verb root meaning “to be vigorous,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.

The many virtues of virtue

For the ancient Romans, virtue also represented a traditionally heroic ideal. But they quickly extended virtus to encompass “strength” and “valor,” then generalized to “excellence,” “worth,” “quality,” or other special, inherent properties that gave something its “potency” or “efficacy.” French – and later, English – copied the vast and varied virtues of this word virtue.

When something has potency or efficacy, it has force, power, or authority. We might finish a marathon or dissertation – or this very blog post – by virtue of sheer willpower. This English expression actually translates a French expression, par la vertu de, or “by the power of,” often used in an official capacity.

By the 1400s, something virtual possessed virtue in that earlier sense of “power” or “efficacy.” As the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) helpfully elucidates, something virtual was “inherently powerful or effective, owing to particular natural qualities.” Translating medieval Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus’ encyclopedic De Proprietatibus Rerum, Cornish author John Trevisa provides English the earliest record with vertual, from Latin’s virtualis.

No easy virtue 

Now, in Latin, virtualis was often said of the healing properties, physical and spiritual, of drugs or medicines (derived from plants), which can help us understand the big metaphysical jump virtual takes. By the the mid-1400s, particularly in religious contexts, the OED explains virtual meant “in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality.”

Should we dust off our Aristotle? Something virtual is effective in essence but not in name, and this usage is all rooted in the idea of virtue as possessing a sort of innate, self-actualizing power. Within the acorn is the potential for the actual oak tree; the acorn, very broadly speaking, is a virtual oak tree.

After the Iowa Caucuses, to leave the philosophy classroom, Bernie Sanders declared his contest there with Hillary Clinton a “virtual tie.” Clinton technically won more votes, but the victory was so narrow that the two were, for all intents and purposes, even.

And if I say I’m “virtually broke,” I may have a hundred or two bucks in my checking account, but I can’t actually pay my all bills. I am not literally broke in name, but, really, I just don’t have enough money to get by. Hence, I’m virtually – or very nearly or essentially  – broke. The OED records this usage by the mid-1600s.

Scientists took to this virtual. At least by the end of the 1600s, they were variously applying it to special phenomena, particularly theoretical, rather than observed, in their discipline.

Virtual‘s reality

Centuries later, computer scientists found the term especially useful. In 1959, John Cocke and Harwood Kolsky presented a paper on virtual memory for an important computer conference in Boston. They described virtual memory as a way to increase computer speed. As in today’s computers, virtual memory increases a computer’s physical memory by temporarily using empty space on the hard drive as if it were real. This memory is additional memory in essence, hence virtual.

In 1979, as the OED documents, IBM used virtual reality as we now know it in a programming announcement: “A base to develop an even more powerful operating system,…designated ‘Virtual Reality’…to enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes.” If Oculus VR has its way, these universes will be not unreal but all too real. That is, if you can your hands on one. I hear they’re virtually impossible to get.

m ∫ r ∫


If you’re reading this at work, at least your boss won’t be catching you shopping. Yes, it’s Cyber Monday, the Internet’s Black Friday. This online retail event was created by some very smart marketers in 2005. The word cyber was created, too, in its own way, by a very smart person and not too long ago. But its etymological inspiration is much older.

Talk about web navigation. “Cyber.” Doodle by me.  


Ironically yet fittingly, the once futuristic-sounding cyber already seems a bit dated. Ironically, because it’s a relatively young word. Fittingly, because, as technology swiftly changes today, so, too, does its language.

Cyber is a back-formation of cybernetics, used by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his 1948 Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Put (not so) simply, cybernetics studies the self-regulating systems at work in complex organisms and machines.

Shortened from this cybernetics as early as the 1960s, cyber– was liberally prefixed to various phenomena of the computer age.  A prominent and influential example, cyberspace was coined by science fiction author William Gibson in 1982. Another author, Bruce Bethke, dreamed up cyberpunk in 1983.

But the cybercafe and cybersex of the 1990s – and many other neologisms that mushroomed during that decade – seem like curios of the past. I would guess that the ubiquity of the Internet – and everything we do on and through fast-changing technology – renders the descriptive prefix, well, obsolete.

Interestingly, cyberattack, cyber-security, and cyber warfare, still maintain currency. Cyber-bullying, too. These, perhaps, have staying power due to their widespread governmental and institutional usage. And Cyber Monday, of course, has turned 15.

While cyber may sound ancient today, its roots are in fact ancient. Via the connecting sense of guiding a system, Wiener’s cybernetics is formed on the Greek κυβερνήτης, or kybernetes, meaning “steersman,” “helmsman,” or “pilot,” as Liddell and Scott gloss it. This noun is rooted in the verb κυβερνᾶν, or  kybernan, “to steer (a ship).” Wiener may have been influenced by cybernétiquecoined by French scientist André-Marie Ampère for the “science of government.” (The scientific unit, the ampere, remembers him, too.)

The Greek kybernetes sailed into Latin as gubernator, hence gubernatorial. After passing into French, Latin’s gubernator eventually yielded English’s own govern and governor. The metaphorical pilot-as-leader is documented early on in all languages. So, if your boss finds you checking out on Amazon this Cyber Monday, just say how it showcases your executive experience.

m ∫ r ∫