20 Computer Terms You Should Know

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A great deal of jargon is used when talking about computers, and it’s surprising how often these terms are used incorrectly. Even published, successful novels sometimes do so. The following list provides an explanation of some of the more common computing terms you may come across or need to employ in your own writing.

Internet, World Wide Web

The Internet is the network of computers we’re all familiar with. It’s quite common for the terms “Internet” and “World Wide Web” to be used interchangeably, but these aren’t actually the same thing. The Internet is essentially the wiring that allows computers all over the world to communicate. The World Wide Web is a system that operates via this wiring. Web pages are transmitted via Internet connections but there is more to the Internet than just the web. Many other types of data travel across the Internet too, for example email.

Web Browser

A program you use to look at, and navigate between, pages on the World Wide Web. Examples include Internet Explorer and Firefox although there are many others. Again, people sometimes refer to web browsers as “the Internet”, whereas they really only provide the means to view pages on the web.

Bandwidth, Broadband

Bandwidth is an indication of how quickly data travels along a connection. The greater the bandwidth, the faster data will be sent and received. Broadband is a rather vague term that refers to bandwidth somewhere above that of an old dial-up modem, although there is no precise definition of the term. Broadband connections are generally “always on”, unlike modem connections. There are various technologies which provide “broadband” speeds – such as ADSL, cable, satellite etc.


The word modem was originally coined in the days when computers communicated by converting numbers into sounds that could then be transmitted over a regular telephone line. At each end you needed a “modulator” to generate the sounds to transmit and a “demodulator” to convert received sounds back into numbers. From “MOdulator/DEModulator” came the word modem.

With modern digital communication, no conversion to and from audible sounds is required, but even so it’s common to hear people talking about “broadband modems” or “ADSL modems” when referring to devices providing broadband connectivity. Strictly speaking, such devices are not modems at all as they communicate digitally but the word has stuck; its meaning has shifted to refer to digital devices as well.

Memory, Disk Space

Another very common source of confusion. In computing, “memory” generally refers to the temporary storage used by a computer whilst it is switched on. A computer loads programs and data into its memory in order to carry out tasks. This is more accurately called RAM or “random-access memory”. Disk space (or “hard disk space”), on the other hand, is a more permanent store that holds files even when the computer is switched off. It’s from here that the computer loads things into its memory. Strictly speaking you don’t store things in the computer’s memory as that vanishes when you turn the machine off.

Virus, Spyware, Trojan, Worm, Malware

These terms are often confused, although they have distinct meanings.

A virus is a piece of software that can copy itself and which attaches itself to some other program in order to survive and replicate. It may have some malicious intent or it may exist simply to reproduce. A worm is similar but it can exist independently; it doesn’t need to attach to a separate program. A Trojan – or Trojan Horse – is a piece of software that gains access to a computer by pretending to be benign or by hiding within some innocent-looking application. The name is obviously derived from the wooden horse employed by the Greek army during the Trojan Wars. Spyware is software that secretly monitors computer activity, attempting to gain private information without the computer user knowing.

By and large, all of the above will have some malicious intent – to harm data, spy on computer activity and so forth. Malware is a general term for all such programs – it simply means any software, of whatever sort, written with a malicious intent. Viruses are generally malware but there is more to malware than just viruses.

Bits, Bytes

At a basic level, all computer data is just a series of 0s and 1s. Each of these is referred to as a “binary digit”, for which “bit” is just an abbreviation. A byte is (generally) a collection of eight bits, so called because of the pun with bit and bite. Similarly a collection of four bits – half a byte – is sometimes called a “nybble”.

In order to refer to large numbers of bits and bytes, various prefixes are used, as in :

1 kilobyte = 1024 (or 1000) bytes
1 megabayte = 1024 (or 1000) kilobytes
1 gigabyte = 1024 (or 1000) megabytes
1 terabyte = 1024 (or 1000) gigabytes
1 petabyte = 1024 (or 1000) terabytes


To switch a computer off and on again, allowing its operating system and programs to be reloaded. Note that this is not the same as placing a computer into standby/hibernate and then resuming. A reboot requires that all software is completely reloaded.

The term derives from “bootstrap”, as in the phrase “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps”, because of the similarity to that seemingly impossible act (as a computer can’t run without first loading some software but must be running before any software can be loaded).


A small text file sent to your computer by a web site you have visited. These can be very useful in that they can allow the web site to recognize who you are when you return. Cookies cannot store viruses or other threats, although they can be used to track your activity across different web sites in order to provide, for example, “targeted” advertisements.


A firewall is a piece of computer software or hardware that restricts the data that is allowed to flow through. Firewalls block traffic that is undesirable in some way, the intention being to prevent infection by malware and so on without restricting the user from carrying out legitimate activity.


Unsolicited email messages sent out in bulk and generally commercial in nature. In fact the term is used more widely these days to refer to such messages in a variety of places, not just on email – for example comments on blogs.

The origin of this sense of the word spam is unclear.


CAPTCHA checks are the strings of letters and numbers that have to be typed in on some web pages before something can be saved. They exist because, although humans find interpreting these strings relatively easy, computers do not. Setting up these checks therefore blocks an automated process – such as one generating spam – from using the page, whereas a human is still able to.

The acronym CAPTCHA actually stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart” – a rather contrived way of arriving at an acronym that sounds like the word “capture”.

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29 thoughts on “20 Computer Terms You Should Know”

  1. I like the term CAPTCHA,
    but most of the time it annoys me. I felt like it’s slowing me down on my net escapade. It’s a good thing there’s no CAPTCHA here on your comment system.
    BTW, the rest of the term are very basic, so yeah, we all should know it.

  2. Bandwidth is actually a measure of a network’s capacity not its speed. Comparing bandwidths is like comparing highways with differing numbers of lanes. A high bandwidth network may not necessarily be any faster than a lower bandwidth network when the amount of data is low, but it has the capability of transferring more data at speed with fewer delays due to “traffic jams.”

  3. “The origin of this sense of the word spam is unclear”

    The origin of this is well documented; it’s from a Monty Python sketch ( . Like the eponymous spam, the unsolicited email just comes and comes and comes. Spam in the email sense also involves repeated posts on fora, on IRC, on game channels; all kinds of places really (and, incidentally, is one of the main reasons for the increase in CAPTCHA on discussion boards).

  4. Hi Jason,

    I know some poeple say the Monty Python sketch is the source of the “unsolicited message” sense of spam but I don’t think it’s completely convincing. The Oxford Dictionary says this only “appears” to be the case.

    As you’ll know, the word spam originally referred to a tinned meat product, the name formed from “SPiced hAM”.

  5. I’m intrigued that in most cases you use an initial capital for “internet”, whereas there seems to be no pattern as to when you use capitals for “(world wide) web”.

    Personally, I think they are now such generic terms that they are in no more need of a capital than the (one and only) atmosphere around our planet.

    As this is a language blog, I’m also interested in whether people prefer “website” to “web site” and “e-mail”, “email” or “E-mail” etc (I prefer the neatness of single words, without hyphens or capitals).

  6. Hi Cecily,

    Yes, on balance, I’d say “internet” and “world wide web” would be my preference too – although I note that the Oxford dictionary still has internet capitalized. Sorry if I wasn’t consistent!

    I prefer “email” too.

  7. No one who was a hacker in the ’70s and ’80s doubts the Monty Python origin of the term ‘spam.’ The dictionary merely looks for documentation to cite. We were there.


    “I’m intrigued that in most cases you use an initial capital for “internet”, whereas there seems to be no pattern as to when you use capitals for “(world wide) web”.”

    An internet is more than one network of computer networked together. If you hook the several computers in your office together with the several computers in a partner’s office, you have created an internet. The Internet is the specific public internet connected by a particular set of technologies, derived from the US DARPANET project.

    Internet is the specific proper noun referring to one particular internet.


  8. ApK,

    Fair enough, I just didn’t want to assert something as fact when there might have been a debate. I’ve worked as a software developer since the 80s myself, by the way.

  9. Oh, I’d like to add on more term that writers (especially TV writers) muddy a lot:

    Hard Drive or Hard Disk.
    This is a storage device. They are most often located INSIDE the ‘box’ of a computer. A hard drive can be removed from the box, replaced, moved to a larger box, and some computers don;t use any hard drive at all.

    The big box that your monitor and keyboard and mouse are attached to is NOT THE HARD DRIVE. It’s the ‘system unit’, sometimes casually referred to as ‘the computer.’ The hard drive, if there is one, is one of many components INSIDE that box.


  10. @ApK: I don’t know where you are, but in England, and working in IT, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the CPU referred to as a “system unit”. Mind you, most people have laptops now and than seems to cause less confusion.

  11. THANK YOU SO MUCH for today’s post on basic computer terms! I love receiving the Daily Writing Tips, but this one made my morning! I have never understood why corporate IT departments struggle to explain these terms when employees really want to understand. Now I can speak intelligently to something I was actually trying to learn. 🙂

  12. Cecily, I’m in the US and can’t understand why you folks over there use half the words you do. 😉

    The CPU is a microprocessor chip package. The Intel Pentium and Celeron are types of CPUs. CPUs are installed on the motherboard inside the system unit, though modern processor packaging architectures are blurring this a bit.

    Truthfully, I rarely hear ‘system unit’ used much anymore. if we want to refer to the box, I typically hear people say ‘the box’ or ‘the computer’ or, if appropriate, ‘the tower.

    In context, if I hear someone use ‘CPU’ or ‘hard drive’ for the system unit, I will know what they mean, but you will see the black smoke rising from my head.

    If you ask me for a new CPU, I will bring you a small chip package figuring you’re going to upgrade your existing system. If you ask me for a hard drive, I will bring you a small silver device figuring you are going to add more storage to your existing system.
    Using those terms to refer to the system unit is imprecise at best.


  13. Great post could you include the terms avatar,wikis, webinar and thread? and the difference between a widget and a gadget?, for those who are not that familiar with this including myself would mean a great deal

  14. Cecily says: “I’m intrigued that in most cases you use an initial capital for ‘internet’, whereas there seems to be no pattern as to when you use capitals for ‘(world wide) web’.”

    An internet (small “i”) is any collection of inter-connected networks. The Internet (capital “I”) is the worldwide collection of public, inter-connected networks that we all use daily.

  15. “Bandwidth is an indication of how quickly data travels along a connection. The greater the bandwidth, the faster data will be sent and received.”

    Well, almost. Strictly speaking, individual bits all travel at (nearly) the speed of light, whether it’s over wire, fiber, or wireless. Bandwidth is a measure of how many bits you can push through a given channel in a given amount of time (hence bits per second). For example you can’t push as many bits per second through a DSL channel as you can through fiber optic cable. But the individual bits travel at the speed of light in both cases.

  16. Wade,

    Absolutely – at the bit level. For volumes of data above a certain level, bandwidth effectively correlates to speed. I’m aware of the differences but was trying to explain some technical terms in layman’s terms.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  17. Along with “Web Browser” should be defined and mentioned “Search Engines” such Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.

  18. the word that drives me crazy because it’s misused so often is “download”. No, you did not download the a physical cd to your computer by sticking it in the drive and running itunes. That’s called ripping.
    Also, if you post something onto the Internet, you “uploaded” it. That’s not downloading either.
    Oh, and if you plug your ipod into your computer and transfer your music to it, that’s not downloading either. That’s transferring, or syncing.

    I hear people use “download” to refer to any file transfer where one of the two parties in the transfer is their computer! Argh

  19. First, I want your group to know the ‘daily’s’ of “writing” is helpful, though at times super-magnum confusing! Words like “Post-Participle/adjective in the subjunctive (what-E-V-E-R)” The shocker to me as a boy was the gibberish of ‘pronounciation’ after a word in the dictionary. What PIN-head came up with that folderol of backward ‘marks’/letters???? SADLY, I am L-O-S-T as to many more complex ‘terms’ used for compukerz today! Even the geeks (who fix them on campus) don’t know many of the acronyms! When I spoke to the retired compuker director, he told me “We hire those who come up with strange names/words naturally!” WHY??? Because he too is “bent in the head”! His rationale is WHY call a door knob a door knob, when you can abort it to “slugg-bitt-sko figg-nut”???? Thanks again for the ‘daily’s’! me

  20. Thanks for clearing that up. I had been wondering about “slugg-bitt-sko figg-nut” for weeks on end.
    My favorite acronym in the business is PCMCIA, for that now-obsolete little slot in the side of many laptops. Brought to us by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association, it was immediately understood to mean People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.
    Works for me.

  21. I have always heard the anecdote, told by my parents – both of whom have been in IT since the very first months of computer technology – and my university professors that SPAM is an acronym for ‘Stupid, Pointless, Annoying Message/s’, and has nothing to do with the Monty Python skit. The Monty Python skit is referencing the canned meat product, Spam, and outdates email.

  22. The Monty Python skit involves inundating the customer with repetitive mention of the unwanted and unsolicited ingredient: Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam and Spam. On Spam.

    That’s the connection.
    There was no acronym.
    Sorry, your parents and professors are wrong.
    Trust me, I’m an anonymous stranger on the Internet.


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