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I'm interested in the origin of the word byte. Although it is a ubiquitous word in computer science, yet it seems no one can point out its origin. (I've been searching the web for a long time, but without coming up with an authoritative answer.

Wikipedia says it's coined from bite, but to avoid mutation to bit, it's respelled to byte.

But why does Weiner Buchholz choose bite, not other words?

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Andrew's answer below is correct, but it should be mentioned that "bit" is the past-tense of "bite" and also means "a small thing." "Bit" to mean a Binary Digit was used by Shannon for information theory and was well-established by the time (1962) Bucholz wrote/edited the document which wikipedia footnotes. –  horatio Aug 1 '13 at 14:38
Just to clarify how "binary digit" corresponds to "bit", it is one of those funny kind of acronyms which use interior and terminal as well as initial letters. BInary digiT. –  Cyberherbalist Aug 1 '13 at 15:58
@horatio Andrew's answer plus your comment will be perfect. :-) –  zhimengfan Aug 1 '13 at 22:17
@Cyberherbalist, is "bit" not a portmanteau rather than an acronym? –  Frank H. Aug 1 '13 at 22:36
@FrankH. Yes! That's the word, "portmanteau"! A "funny kind of acronym". –  Cyberherbalist Aug 1 '13 at 23:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The term byte implies a chunk of something — whenever I hear the word, I picture someone taking bite out of a sandwich. That chunk of sandwich is equivalent to the unit of digital information represented by a byte. To extend this metaphor, half a byte is called a nibble or nybble. I would imagine that nibbling a sandwich would result in a smaller amount of food than biting a sandwich.

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And half a nibble is... a crumb! –  Amory Aug 1 '13 at 13:37
And two bytes is a chomp! –  Andrew Ng Aug 1 '13 at 13:41
Or should it be crymb and chymp? ;-) –  TrevorD Aug 1 '13 at 14:09
You picture the sandwich itself as representing a byte, but when someone takes a bite out of the sandwich, the chunk they remove is also a byte. Confusing :-) –  Frank H. Aug 1 '13 at 14:49
I'm sorry if I was unclear - I meant that the sandwich is simply a bunch of digital information. A byte of the sandwich is a chunk of that information. A nibble would be a smaller chunk. –  Andrew Ng Aug 1 '13 at 14:52

We'll never know unless we hear from the man himself, but the following might be of interest:

Origins of the term "BYTE"

It was written by Bob Bemer who worked with Werner Buchholz at IBM.

I think the explanation is simply that Werner Buchholz came up with bite as a tongue-in-cheek collective noun for a group of bits, then changed the spelling to byte to avoid confusion.

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Eric S. Raymond, The Hacker's Dictionary, Third Edition (1996), offers this comment on the term's origin:

Historical note: The term was coined by Werner Buchholtz in 1956 during the early design phase for the IBM Stretch computer; originally it was described as 1 to 6 bits (typical I/O equipment of the time used 6-bit chunks of information). The move to an 8-bit byte happened in late 1956, and this size was later adopted and promulgated as a standard by the System/360. The word was coined by mutating the word 'bite' so it would not be accidentally misspelled as bit.

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My experience with computing goes back to 1964, when processing of business specific data was known as 'batch' processing and computers only did one thing at a time. A 'bit' of information was, and is, a single on/off representation of plausible information, the essential atom of a 'byte' of information- meaningless in itself but used to form a 'byte' in BCD or binary coded decimal. Each BCD character consists of one of a possible 4 bits of numeric quality, one of a possible 2 bits of alphabetic quality, and a 'check' bit which ensures the machine readable quality of the character. So a possible 3 bit combination makes a single alpha/numeric character or 'byte', the lowest form of actual information perceivable. A 'bit' is not a 'byte', therefore. A byte is larger and is the first use of actual coded information

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this is an answer which addresses one possible definition of byte but does not address the question itself. –  horatio Aug 1 '13 at 14:28
How does this answer address the etymology question being asked? –  Nicholas Aug 1 '13 at 14:48

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