Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Does the word come from sonar? Is it a "backronym"? Internet jargon? Yes, yes, and yes.
My first real job was in a museum education department, where most of my time was spent away from my desk and off my phone. So it wasn't until I landed in the office world of a magazine that I encountered the term "ping": Ping me when you're ready for lunch, or, I'll ping you if you forget to reply.
I felt somewhat bothered—pinged, if you will—by the term, belonging as it does behind the glass door of irritating office-speak: Let's take this offline; She was hoping to touch base; I'll circle back later.
Turns out that the word has a more playful history than some other jargon, and I can even appreciate it a bit now. (Please punch me in the arm, though, if I ever actually invite you to "ping" me). So: Why and when did ping become a thing?
Indeed. Well, I assumed that the term (according to the Urban Dictionary, "a virtual 'poke' (email, instant message, etc.) usually sent for reminder purposes") mimicked the sound that any means of electronic communication might make. And that's pretty close to its origins, though the Oxford English Dictionary dates the onomatopoeic "ping" to the 1830s, in the "pings" of bullets, and later, notably, the sonar "pings" of submarines.
However, the "ping" office workers talk about has more to do with the term's lineage in the IT world, where sending a "ping" literally means performing a basic network connectivity test. One computer sends an "echo request packet" (a message, basically) to another computer on the IP network, thereby checking the host's connection and measuring the time needed for the message to return.
Even the IT use of the term has multiple etymologies, though. As Indiana University linguist Michael Adams explains by email:
Two early computer wizards more or less coined the term at the same time, but with different etymologies. David L. Mills was working on the pinging code in the early 1980s, and he used that term, presumably from the sonar term, and then performed a backronym... [or] a reverse-engineered acronym, so to speak. The backronym, Packet InterNet Groper was first used by Mills in RFC 889, dated December 1983.
But Mills isn't usually credited with the invention of the ping utility. That honor goes to Michael Muuss, because...
In July of 1983, at a conference on the ARPANET, the progenitor of our Internet, Mills used the term ping in a conversation with Mike Muuss to describe what was becoming the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP)—the network utility referred to as ping. Muuss encountered a problem with a system that required an ICMP fix; he remembered his conversation with Mills and wrote the code he called ping to solve it *in December 1983.* So, Muuss used ping from the sonar meaning without knowing about the backronym.
The colloquial "ping" seems to have emerged in the 1990s among tech and dot-com companies, whose workers were familiar with the technical use. "I was hearing this usage in the '90s when I worked at Xerox PARC," writes UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg in an email. "But those were probably early adopters."
Informal polling concurs. One Facebook friend believes the term's spread to non-developer-lips may have had to do with the period's reigning "geek culture":
So, are developers laughing behind your back whenever you "ping" your office-mate? I posed that question to some folks on the Atlantic's IT team, and they all said no; the word has become enough a part of the general lexicon. Phew!
But one programmer, Carl Johnson, did point me to a classic children's book about a duck, whose Amazon reviews are a nesting ground for ICMP nerd-ery. "Using deft allegory, the authors have provided an insightful and intuitive explanation of one of Unix's most venerable networking utilities," writes John E. Fracisco. And there you have it: The Story About Ping.