Polonius: "What do you read, my lord?"
Hamlet: "Words, words, words."
-- Hamlet, Act II, scene ii, by William Shakespeare
Those who are not technical experts (and even those who are) often misuse technical terms in many walks of life. When it comes to computers, perhaps because they are so prevalent, the misuse of terminology and subsequent confusion runs rampant.
In this article, I try to correct some of the misunderstandings, and clarify the meanings of a number of technical terms. Here are a few of the most common misuses of computer terms I've seen recently.
CPU is actually an abbreviation not an acronym (more on this distinction below). "CPU" stands for "Central Processing Unit." In modern personal computers, the CPU is a relatively small electronic chip, an integrated circuit. It sits on the motherboard, inside the computer's case. It is not the case itself, nor is it the total computer, which includes the case and everything within it.
I'm not sure how the incorrect practice of calling the whole computer the "CPU" began, but here's my guess: when you buy a computer, you normally get the case and what's in it, along with a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and perhaps a printer. All of these peripherals connect to the case. Because everything connects to the case, the case is "central" to everything else and the term "Central Processing Unit" was misunderstood and misapplied to it.
Misuse of the term hard drive is less common than "CPU," but I've similarly seen the term "hard drive" applied to the entire computer case and what's in it. Of course, the real situation is exactly the same: the hard drive, like the CPU, is just one of the many things inside the case.
The term "memory" is used to refer to the place where the computer holds the program and data it is working with at the moment. It's normally random access memory (RAM), but that can be extended with the page or swap file on the hard disk. The word "memory" is never used to refer to the space on a drive (whether that's a hard drive, diskette, CD, DVD, or thumb drive). Space on a disk drive is normally called "storage" or simply "disk space."
Unlike the misusages above, calling disk space "memory" isn't so much wrong, as just unconventional. In a sense, disk space is, of course, memory, but the important thing to realize is the word is never used that way, and if you do so, you do it at the risk of seriously confusing your audience.
The term virtual memory is confusing! Modern versions of operating systems like Windows extend the system RAM as needed with a page file or swap file. Most people call that space in the page or swap file "virtual memory." You'll be far from alone if you call it that, but be aware that that's not the way Microsoft uses the term. To Microsoft, "virtual memory" is not just the page or swap file, but the sum total of all the memory available to you. In other words, Microsoft says virtual memory is the RAM plus the page or swap file.
System Partition/Boot Partition
This term is the source of still more serious confusion! Most people would naturally assume that the System Partition refers to the partition containing the operating system, and that the Boot Partition contains the files needed to boot. Incredibly, that's exactly the opposite of the way Microsoft uses the two terms. See this Knowledgebase article:
I have a friend to whom the word "disk" means only CD or DVD. He isn't alone in distinguishing this type of "disk" from a floppy or a hard disk. To most of us, they all are disks of various kinds. The hard drive (or hard disk), the diskette (or "floppy disk," even though they aren't really floppy any more), CDs, and DVD are all disks. In fact, external storage like a thumb drive can be considered a disk, yet it has no moving parts and isn't even round.
To "download" a file is to transfer it from a remote or central system to your local system. When the transfer is initiated from the local system, it is called "downloading." When the transfer is initiated from the remote system, it's called "uploading."
Note that the file being downloaded can be any kind of file at all. It might be a text file, graphic image, video, music, program file, and so forth. To "download" a program does not mean to install it on your computer. Regardless of how you get the file, whether by downloading it or by purchasing it in a store, after you download a program, if you want to run it, you still need to install it.
Some people speak of "a" software, as if they were speaking of "a" house. What they mean is a program, not a software. The construction "a software" doesn't exist in English.
To explain this, I have to get a little technical. English has two kinds of nouns: count nouns and mass nouns. Most nouns are count nouns, so we can speak of a house, two horses, four computers, and so on. But some nouns are mass nouns. Mass nouns have no plural, are used with a singular verb, and don't have an article or a number in front of them. So you can say "a table and two chairs," but not "three furnitures," because "furniture" is a mass noun. You can say "three pieces of furniture," but not "three furnitures."
The same is true of the word "software." It too is a mass noun, so you can say "a piece of software" or three pieces of software," but not "a software" or "three softwares."
Here's one misuse I've stopped fighting. A computer virus is simply a piece of self-replicating code. It doesn't have to do anything bad to be a virus.
Besides some viruses, other similar kinds of programs that do bad things include worms and Trojan horses. Although these programs are not technically viruses, they have for so long been lumped together with viruses that I've given up. I'll go along with everyone else, and loosely call them all "viruses."
Note above that I used the word "viruses" as the plural of "virus." That's correct. There is no word "virii." If the singular were "virius," and we wanted to use a Latin plural, we might say "virii," as in "radius" and "radii."
But the singular is "virus," not "virius" and "the fake plural "virii" is just illiterate. If it were Latin, there might be a Latin plural "viri" (with one "i"), but curiously that doesn't exist. The Latin word "virus," which means "poison," apparently never had a plural; at least nobody's ever seen one.
In recent years, as spyware and adware have become more prevalent, the new word "malware" has started becoming more common. But, despite the way some people use the term, "malware" does not mean spyware and adware in particular. It's simply a shortening of "malicious software," which is any software that does bad things. So malware can include viruses, worms, and Trojan horses along with spyware and adware.
The word "acronym" does not simply mean an abbreviation, but refers to a specific type of abbreviation: one that is pronounced as if it were a word. Examples are "RADAR" and "NATO." Abbreviations that are not acronyms include "CPU" (referenced above) and "TV."
Some words are treated as acronyms by some people (or in some languages), but not others. For example, the abbreviation "FAO," for the Food and Agricultural Organization, is not treated as an acronym in the USA, where it's pronounced eff-ay-oh. But in Rome, where FAO's headquarters are, it's pronounced fah-oh, and is an acronym.
Some people will disagree with me, pointing out that the word "acronym" is so widely used these days even for abbreviations not pronounced as a word, that insisting on its original meaning is useless. They may in fact turn out to be right in the long run, but my view is that we are fortunate to have two words, "abbreviation" and "acronym," that have different meanings, we should use them. If we collapse the two meanings into one, we lose the useful distinction between the two.
The word "slipstreaming" was originally used to refer to the practice of many software manufacturers of including updates to their product on the distribution CD without any real announcement of what they were doing or differentiation of the various kinds of CDs. It was always a disparaging term because it was poor practice. It was used as a way for the manufacturer to avoid printing a different box and manual for the updated version, and to sell older stock that didn't appear to be outdated, but actually was. That saved the manufacturer money, but it left the customer unable to tell whether he was buying the new version or the old.
Somewhere along the line, people started creating their own updated versions of some software, by merging the update files with the original CD. Someone got the bright idea to call it by the same name "slipstreaming," without realizing that the name was originally used in a disparaging way.
The term stuck. I dislike the use of the word this way, but the original meaning has been lost, so I long ago gave up trying to fight it. Since everybody now uses it simply to mean a version with the upgrade incorporated in it, I reluctantly go along.
So these days a slipstreamed copy of XP simply means an installation CD that you've made yourself that incorporates an upgrade, such as SP2.
This list of "nerd words" runs the gamut from complete misuses like "CPU" and "download" which confuse the listener, to more minor transgressions that only an old fussbudget like me actually cares about. You can feel free, of course, to accept or disagree with any of the points I make. As they say, YMMV (your mileage may vary), which is not an acronym, by the way.