Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Internet Groping Considered Harmful

I love it when two of my interests collide. In this case, it's three of them: computing, etymology ... and righteous indignation.

Computer word origins fascinate me. Usually, ferreting out the various etymologies is a positive experience -- like when I found out that DEL is ASCII 127 because punching out all of the bit positions is the only "final" state of each character, and therefore the only way to delete. On more than one occasion, I've gotten lost in Eric S. Raymond's Jargon File for hours, digging up the stories behind words like kludge, crash, wedged and GECOS. This particular quest, though, sent me on a side trip that "... has as much sex appeal as a road accident." (with apologies to Douglas Adams)

Multiple experts on networking -- even Cisco -- claim that ping got its name as an acronym for "Packet InterNet Groper." This always sounded fishy to me: a little hard to say, a little cheesy ... just not very appealing.

It turns out that ping was actually named after the sound of sonar by its late author, Michael Muuss. The "Packet InterNet Groper" acronym is actually a backronym that was probably coined by David Mills.

Michael's page about ping is a fascinating read (and you can even get the original source code) ... and the real explanation is sooooo much more elegant than all of this pawing around in the dark. Every time I see some web site touting the Groping Theory, I long for megaphone the size of New Jersey into which I would yell "COME OOONNNN, PEOPLE!!!" (I may be channeling for Lynne Truss just a tad).

So spread the word! Ask your geek friends what "ping" stands for, and gently steer them in the right direction. Michael's own description says it best:

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.

Thank you, Michael! I don't know if you were ever a gamer, but wherever you are now, I hope that you're always guaranteed the lowest ping times at St. Peter's LAN parties.