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According to Wikipedia ping, the IP network utility, was named after the sonar "ping", which is apparently onomatopoeic.

However, "ping" is now used in the vernacular in the sense of "pinging" someone via (usually) electronic communication to request acknowledgement of a message. Does the usage of "ping" in this latter sense directly derive from the network utility ping, or does it predate it? And how common is usage of the word "ping" like this by people without technical backgrounds or who are otherwise familiar with the ping utility?

Also, assuming the vernacular usage does derive from the ping utility, are there examples other technical jargon that have entered the common vernacular and become (mostly) dissociated with their technical origins? (Computer jargon terms like "bits" and "bytes" that are commonly known but commonly understood as computer jargon do not count...obviously this hinges on what is considered common knowledge so cannot be answered precisely, but I'm looking for things generally in this category.)

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As a non-native English speaker who works with a California hightech cia, i was shocked to learn that "i will ping you" means to send an instant message (im). And in my job i pretty much use ping daily. –  gcb Mar 6 '13 at 5:45

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The network utility dates from 1983. I first heard the IM use sometime within the last five or so years.

The IM meaning can be found on Urban Dictionary from September 10, 2005, in this second highest voted definition:

a virtual "poke" (email, instant message, etc.) usually sent for reminder purposes.

feel free to ping me if i haven't gotten back to you by friday morning!

A slightly earlier definition is from March 11, 2005:

To send an electronic message on any device.

Ping me tomorrow and let me know when to pick you up.

An earlier example can be found on the American Dialect Society mailing list from March 1, 2000:

A computer science person that I work with fairly frequently used this term [ping (on)] twice within a couple of minutes today, to mean "get in touch with" or "send a reminder to" a person.

"I'll go ping on him right now to see if we can etc."

And a reply:

Note that the usage "ping on" is unusual. Saying "I'll go ping him right now" (without the "on") sounds better.

The IM use is very similar to the utility, it's a short signal to test or rather announce online availability, as in "ping me when you're in the office".

When the ping utility was created, the sonar ping wasn't the only one. The OED says the sonar ping comes from the sound the equipment makes, from WWII. Ping as "a short, resonant, high-pitched (usually metallic) sound, as that made by the firing of a bullet, the ringing of a small bell, etc." is 19th century and still current. This may also influence the modern "ping me".

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So you think there's absolutely 0% chance that anyone in 1983 would have understood the word "ping" to mean anything at all to do with personal communication? I grant that it seems unlikely, but there have been stranger cases of words with earlier usage than one might expect.... –  bababadalgharagh Mar 6 '13 at 6:46
Unless you consider pinging your friend's terminal as "personal communication", 0% chance. –  Andrew Lazarus Mar 6 '13 at 6:52
@AndrewLazarus I don't doubt that you're right, but it would be surprising and interesting if someone managed to find any instance of anything in the pre-1983 written corpus of usage like this. Stranger things have happened. (Besides, going directly from the sonar "ping" to this usage isn't all that much of a metaphorical stretch.) –  bababadalgharagh Mar 6 '13 at 7:00
It's not such a stretch, but the network ping fits very neatly halfway between the sonar and IM pings. The network ping was also used in multiplayer network games (such as Unreal Tournament) to show latency to different servers. These games often included IM and were played by IM users who won't have heard the network term before. –  Hugo Mar 6 '13 at 7:14
@Hugo regardless, it seems that this etymology is not understood universally, since one entry on UrbanDictionary is "To send a short message, expecting a yes/no response. Originally from submarines, where a ping sound was emitted to listen for echoes from other vessels.; either the author is unaware of ping or purposely skipped that part of the etymology. –  bababadalgharagh Mar 6 '13 at 7:24

I was in the submarine force in the late 1960s. Ping was the universally used term for active sonar pulses. "Ping" is about as close as you can get orally to the sound the sonar operators heard. I believe quite a few military and ex-military people were involved in early development that led up to the internet. The analogy of the ping internet utility to the sonar ping is just about perfect. I'd have been surprised if the utility had been named anything else! At least in the submarine force, but probably in the surface Navy as well, the term also was used to denote repeated requests/demands for something, as in "the XO is really pinging on me to turn in that report." As I recall, it was always used with "on" for this purpose.

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I read in a book about Free Software, that the original version of ping was written by a computer technician when he was trying to fix some troubles of his network. So he wrote a program that sends packages and makes the receiver to send them straight back. So he could tell how much time the round-trip takes.

He found this strategy similar to sonar, where you send an acoustic ping into the water and wait for the echo. Therefore, the program was named ping.

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Thanks, if this is an authoritative source (more so than WP) than it seems to confirm that "ping" must not have had any usage other than the sonar "ping" one at the time ping the utility was created. –  bababadalgharagh Mar 6 '13 at 8:03
Sonar ping wasn't first. The OED says the sonar ping comes from the sound the equipment makes, from WWII. Ping as "a short, resonant, high-pitched (usually metallic) sound, as that made by the firing of a bullet, the ringing of a small bell, etc." is 19th century and still current. This may also influence the modern "ping me". –  Hugo Mar 6 '13 at 8:46

How about when Jack Kirby used the term 'ping' as early as 1972 to represent the method a device named 'Mother Box' alerted, or otherwise messaged the organic beings subject to it?

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Please supply more information about the source of this usage. This answer makes very little sense without it. –  phenry Jul 17 at 21:49

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