‘WIMP,’ and its role in the evolution in technology

No matter how powerful your personal computer is, it’s still a wimp when compared with today’s supercomputers. But—in Associated Press style, at least—it’s probably also a “WIMP.”

That all-capital rendering is a clue that “WIMP” is an acronym, a word formed from the first letters of the words in its long form. An acronym is pronounced as a word; remember, it’s not the same as an initialism, where the initial letters are pronounced as letters, as in “FBI.”

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“WIMP” is an interesting bit of computer terminology and lore. It stands for “windows, icons, menus, pointers,” and denotes that the interaction between computer and user is based not on text (e.g., entering commands such as “c://run:d”) but on graphics. This type of interaction is a “graphical user interface,” or “GUI.” That’s another acronym, pronounced “GOO-ey.”

In 1973 at its PARC campus (an acronym of Palo Alto Research Center), Xerox developed the Alto, the first computer to use this graphic-based interface. Documents from that era show that it had a “pointing device” attached to the main computer by wire. That pointing device had been named a “mouse” in a paper by NASA engineers in 1965. (NASA is another acronym, standing for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) Yes, it was so named because it looked like a small rodent. As the engineers described it: “Within comfortable reach of the user’s right hand is a device called the ‘mouse,’ which we developed for evaluation … as a means for selecting those displayed text entities upon which the commands are to operate.” 

As that mouse moved, the NASA engineers said, its position was monitored by the computer, “which displays a special tracking cross, which we call the ‘bug,’ on the screen in a position corresponding to that of the mouse on the table.”That “bug” was an I-shaped symbol, a form retained across many generations of computers.

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In later computers, the “pointer,” usually a small arrow, can be in one place, while a specific location on the screen is marked by something else: the “cursor.” To reach that specific place, one moves the mouse and its pointer and then clicks; the cursor jumps to that spot. You can think of the bug as the precursor to the cursor. As it happens, the word “precursor” was the, um, precursor to “cursor.” They are related, etymologically speaking.

“Precursor” dates to about 1500 in English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, coming from the Latin for “forerunner, advanced guard.” (It was used much earlier, in the Gospels, to describe John the Baptist as the “precursor” of Jesus, but not in English.) We’ve often written that the “pre-” prefix means “before”; in this case, “precursor” appeared in English a few years before “cursor,” which indicated a runner or running messenger, the OED says. (Yes, that’s an initialism.)  

Different scientific instruments such as slide rules had movable parts, called the “cursor,” which was a runner or messenger of sorts that indicated a specific location, setting, or result.

The computer cursor first appeared in a 1967 memo from MIT (an initialism of Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the OED says, describing how “The cursor on the screen ‘follows’ the motion of the ‘mouse.’” (A 1968 demonstration of an early cursor still called it a “bug.”)

Back to “WIMP.” The Xerox Alto had the “windows,” “icons,” “menus,” and “pointer,” as this image (of a 1975 version) shows.

But the term “WIMP” did not appear until 1980, the same decade that both Macintosh and Microsoft introduced computers with all those features. (Steve Jobs visited Xerox in 1979 and saw the Alto and its GUI, which is said to have inspired the Macintosh.) Someone named Merzouga Wilberts is credited with the term in multiple references, but we have been unable to discover more about who this was.

Today, most “wimps” are lowercased and not about computers. That kind of wimp is “a weak, cowardly, or ineffectual person,” as Merriam-Webster says. While we know where “WIMP” came from, we’re not so sure about “wimp.” The OED says it might be from “whimper,” the whine of a dog. The OED’s first citation is from 1920, though a contemporary “wimp” referred to women or girls, the OED says, possibly a corruption of “women.”

The uppercase “WIMP” has all but disappeared: The most recent nontechnical reference we could find in Nexis was in 2009 articles celebrating 25 years of the Macintosh.

A 2003 PC Magazine article urged people to abandon “WIMP” in favor of a text-based interface that would allow a large computer monitor to be mounted across the room and be controlled from a keyboard to play media files. (Today, we would call that a smart TV.) The original article had several links to explanations and illustrations of this new interface. They lead elsewhere now. Apparently, the new interface “wimped out.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.