3.1342 Computer Gender (134)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 2 May 90 16:53:09 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 1342. Wednesday, 2 May 1990.

(1) Date: Tue, 1 May 90 15:26 MDT (7 lines)
Subject: Computer in Spanish

(2) Date: Tue, 1 May 90 23:19:55 EDT (17 lines)
From: psc90!jdg@dartvax.dartmouth.edu (Dr. Joel Goldfield)
Subject: "Computer gender"

(3) Date: Wed, 2 May 90 08:49 EST (26 lines)
Subject: more on computer gender

(4) Date: Wed, 02 May 90 10:41:44 EDT (43 lines)
From: Richard Ristow <AP430001@BROWNVM>
Subject: Re: 3.1336 Computer Gender (139

(5) Date: Wed, 2 May 90 12:50 EDT (33 lines)
From: "Leslie Z. Morgan" <MORGAN@LOYVAX>
Subject: Computer gender, cont.

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 1 May 90 15:26 MDT
Subject: Computer in Spanish

Along with ordinador (m) and computadora (f), computador (m) is also
widely used.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------35----
Date: Tue, 1 May 90 23:19:55 EDT
From: psc90!jdg@dartvax.dartmouth.edu (Dr. Joel Goldfield)
Subject: "Computer gender"

I agree with Peter Kuniholm's comments on "THE" vs "A" computer. The
mainframe vs pc proliferation distinction is sensible.

PERSONALLY, I've never heard a computer referred to as anything but "it"
(no "he," "she," etc.), starting at the MIT high school studies program
in '71 and running through college, graduate school, and now in this
great "beyond." That includes all conferences as well. And books. And
articles. And computer techies/teckies. Etc. Oh, except in this
discussion, that is.

Joel D. Goldfield
Plymouth State College (NH)
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------31----
Date: Wed, 2 May 90 08:49 EST
Subject: more on computer gender


With our large central computers we have finessed the gender issue, in a
sense, by giving names to the computers. Some years ago, when we had
just two DEC10s they were named Scylla and Charybdis. This reflected
the interests and humor of our then-director, since he had a philosophy
background, was Greek, and one computer was for academic use and one for
administrative. I don't think anyone attributed gender to these names.
When we moved into the VAX era we continued naming. But our
then-director and our senior systems programmer both had strong
mathematics backgrounds, so we switched to mathematicians. Hilbert,
Archimedes, Euler, Descartes as the first ones. Now gender became
noticible. So the next machine after that was deliberately named for a
female mathematician, Noether. Later Bernoulli was added.

Jim Cerny, University of NH. j_cerny@unhh
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------49----
Date: Wed, 02 May 90 10:41:44 EDT
From: Richard Ristow <AP430001@BROWNVM>
Subject: Re: 3.1336 Computer Gender (139

C. M. Sperberg-McQueen captures what I think of as "old school" computer
terminology very precisely in his posting. (This usage is not confined
tosystems programmers -- my own experience was in user services, and we
used the same terms). An oddity, which he notes, is a curious reluctance
to say "computer"; the alternatives he gives ("the machine", "the
system", "the 3081", less often "us") are exactly right. Describing
information as "computerized" or (worse) "in the computer" still grates
for me; the old- school term is "machine readable" (cf. the Library of
Congress MARC -- "machine readable catalog" -- standard format). This
captures an important distinction: The material is not owned by a
computer, nor "in" one (it was then still the custom to distinguish the
computer from disk drives, tapes, etc. attached to it); it is readable
by one. (Why one doesn't say "computer", though, was never clear to me
even though I internalized it.)

I don't think I ever recall a computer referred to by a personal pronoun
("he" or "she"), but terminology often personified especially a program,
even while using "it": "What does it think it's seeing, to give us that

The alternative terms Sperberg-McQueen lists are not precisely
synonymous. "The system", "the 3081", and "us" tend to refer to the
particular hardware and configuration at a particular place. Within
those, "the 3081" or "the VAX" emphasize the physical machine, and "the
system" the whole configuration: "How's the 3081 doing?" may mean "Have
hardware problems shown up?"; "How's the system today?" would tend to
include "Are there software problem? Is it overloaded?". "The machine"
can be more abstract, meaning something like computer power in general:
"I can't solve this problem, let's throw it on the machine." would be
used for "I can't find a formal solution, let's try numerical analysis."
and would NOT imply the particular machine intended; "Do you think the
machine can help with this problem" means "Is there an algorithmic (or
computer-based) technique that's useful?", and would not be taken to
include questions about, say, the capacity of the machine at one's own
school. (However, these categories are fuzzy. I see that I've broken
my own rule just above; but it sounds right, and I'll let it stand.) I
must therefore disagree with Peter Ian Kuniholm that "the machine", etc.,
explicitly refer to a single computing system in an organization; "the
machine", especially, is intentionally an abstraction and refers to the
sense in which all computers have the same function. As for "the
computer", as in "the computer made a mistake", that's a usage from a
different occupational culture and I'll refer it to Humanists with
relevant experience.
(5) --------------------------------------------------------------37----
Date: Wed, 2 May 90 12:50 EDT
From: "Leslie Z. Morgan" <MORGAN@LOYVAX>
Subject: Computer gender, cont.

You said:
"As a very indirect comment on the above, when the Academie francaise
accepted the newly coined word "automobile" in French, near the end of
the last century, it assigned a male gender to the new word, based on
the gender of the latin root, as is the normal procedure in loan words
in French. By 1915, however, the gender had switched to feminine...

Staid dictionaries fail to give a reason for this switch, but legend has
it that because the automobile aroused such passion, and was so
unreliable in those days, needing much care and attention, it was..."
Dana Paramskas)

I had thought the reason for the change of gender of "automobile" in
French was due to the use of other synonyms- la voiture is feminine, but
I don't have an etymological dictionary at hand to check on the date of
its first appearance in French. In Italian, "automobile" is feminine,
as is "la macchina".

In Italian, "Il computer", masculine, is more used than "il calcolatore"
or "La calcolatrice" (which is smaller, a calculator, not a computer).
The screen (lo schermo) is masculine and the printer (la stampante) is
feminine, much like in French.

I believe, speaking of machines, that in Spanish automobil is masculine,
like its synonym, el coche. What about computers in Spanish? Are they
using English also? (we seem to have heard from most of Western Europe
at this point...) L. Morgan (morgan@loyvax.bitnet)