[SIGCIS-Members] History of gendered terms, e.g., "motherboard"

Brian L. Stuart blstuart at bellsouth.net
Wed May 24 08:09:00 PDT 2017

I'll add a cautionary, yet amusing, anecdote related to the use of
the parent/child metaphor with OS processes.  Of course, the terms
are indeed very descriptive and naturally follow their use in the
hierarchical relationship in trees.  However, even in an office full
of engineers, exclaiming "My children are dying in the wrong order"
will get you some pretty concerned and questioning looks.  It's
even worse when you talk about killing them...

Yes, I did learn to use less dramatic phrasing after that.


On Wed, 5/24/17, Paul N. Edwards <pne at umich.edu> wrote:

 Interesting discussion. OED does not speculate on this connection; first
 use of “motherboard” it lists is 1965.

 It’s worth noting that some of the gendered terms in engineering are
 very clear and literal metaphors, not specifically human though definitely

 “Mother ship,” like “motherboard,” refers to a larger thing from which
 smaller, but similar dependent units (smaller ships, subsidiary circuit boards)
 are launched, to which they are attached, and from which they draw sustenance
 (fuel, electricity). 

 “Female” and “male” connectors refer to sockets and plugs respectively, also
 quite literal, also not particularly human but mammalian.

 This is not to say that such metaphors aren’t sometimes
 deployed in objectionable, human-oriented ways, but it would
 be silly to ignore their value as readily understood descriptors of
 physical structure and/or relationships.


 On May 24, 2017, at 9:43 , mike willegal <mike at willegal.net> wrote:
 My guess is that the term, Motherboard, was derived from the term
 Mothership, which is still in common usage by the general population, and
 according to several online dictionaries originated in the
 19th century.  Note that when techs and engineers refer to
 Motherboards, they normally use the gender neutral pronoun, "it".
 cheers,Mike Willegal

 On May 23, 2017, at 1:51 PM, Mark Priestley <m.priestley at gmail.com> wrote:
 Hi Caitlin,
 I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing you're looking for, but some CS pioneers
 were rather keen to use the master-slave metaphor to talk
 about human-computer relations. Eg:
 Jack Good reported
 that: "Turing used to refer jocularly to people who are
 forced to do
 mechanical operations as
 Bardini quotes
 Engelbart: "Think ahead to the day when computer
 technology might provide for your very own use the full-time
 services of a completely attentive, very patient, very fast
 symbol-manipulating slave who has an IQ adequate for 95% of
 your today's mental tasks."
 And there's this
 unfortunate Newsweek caption about Harry Huskey.
 think probably links back to earlier tropes about robots: eg
 in Capek's RUR, the rebellious robots are precisely
 slaves. I've got an unpublished conference paper I wrote
 a few years back about this which I could dig out if
 you're interested.

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