I was explaining to someone what the * in "trans*" means (zero-to-many wildcard. In this case, it's used to refer to both "transexual" and "transgender" people with the same word), and another friend chimed in saying it came from computer programming. While I could tell them it was used in operating systems such as DOS and Unix before that, I couldn't say whether it came from computer culture or appeared before that. It seems reasonable that there would have been use for it, but a different character may easily have been chosen.

What is the earliest recorded instance of an asterisk being used as a zero-to-many character wildcard?

Note: I'm not referring to masks such as "f*ck". That is a different concept, in that it's a replacement of exactly one character, and is referring to only a single word.

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    It was invented by Stephen Kleene around 1956 as part of the specifications for regular expressions; it's called the "Kleene star" or the "Kleene closure". – John Lawler Jul 4 '13 at 23:25
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    @AlbeyAmakiir Technically, the Kleene star operator applies to the previous atom. What you are looking at is a shortcut used in filename wildcard expansions. Your trans* is really ^trans.*$ using real regexes, because the star applies to the previous dot. – tchrist Jul 5 '13 at 0:40
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    Since I assume that most people would not expect trans* to include transport, transubstantiation or even transition; its claimed connection to a multi-character wildcard seems rather forced. – Fortiter Jul 5 '13 at 1:20
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is NOT about "English". Basically, what @Fortiter said - it's just a very loose extension of a computer filename convention. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '13 at 3:18
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    I'm not sure I agree. I don't think I've heard it outside a CS/computer-related context, but if it is used as OP suggests, then isn't it a neologosim (through re-purposing)? (And hence, as on-topic as a question about "lol", or "-dar" as in "gaydar") @AlbeyAmakiir, I think it would improve the question if you could provide some examples of this "trans*" usage, or other usages of the 'Kleene star' outside of computing. (And +1 to JL, as usual. Could/should be an answer.) – hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 6:24

The term you ask about, trans*, appears to be a new word in written English. A Google search for [trans asterisk] returns many examples of usage.

As a wildcard expression, the term would simply represent all words beginning with trans. But in written text having to do with sexuality, it means “the entire gender identity spectrum”, by extension from individual words such as transsexual, transgender, and transvestite. The term uses the asterisk as a wildcard to symbolize all gender identities and possibilities.

It’s not clear how trans* is being pronounced; two possibilities I have seen online are “trans asterisk” and “trans anything”.

The asterisk wildcard character used in the term does predate DOS and UNIX. It descends from the Multics asterisk wildcard character, known as a star name or the star convention


1. History of the asterisk wildcard character leading up to DOS and UNIX (and beyond):

TOPS-10 syntax (precursor of MS-DOS)

The TOPS-10 operating system took the asterisk to mean all. It would be used in place of an entire filename, extension, user number, or group number. For example, *.PL1 stands for all filenames with extension PL1. The asterisk was used alone, never combined with other characters, so you could not write A*.PL1. (Technically, the TOPS-10 asterisk in place of a filename is exactly equivalent to six question marks: ??????. Filenames were fixed at six characters wide. The question mark stands for any single character in its position.)

Later DEC operating systems, such as DOS-BATCH, RSTS, and RSX, inherited this syntax. CP/M (or possibly Commodore DOS before it) took its wildcard syntax from RSTS, and CP/M’s syntax was emulated by MS-DOS.

Multics syntax (precursor of UNIX and modern Microsoft Windows)

The GE Multics operating system supported a more flexible syntax: the asterisk matched any number of characters in a name component, and could be combined with other characters. For example, a*.pl1 stands for all filenames whose first component starts with a and whose second component is pl1. UNIX took its wildcard syntax from Multics but did away with components, treating the period as an ordinary character in the filename. In UNIX, a*pl1 stands for all filenames beginning with a and ending with pl1.

The last major DEC operating system, VAX/VMS, dropped the legacy DEC syntax in favor of the Multics syntax. Influenced by VAX/VMS, Microsoft Windows NT (the ancestor of 2000, XP, Vista, 7, and 8) did the same.

Relationship to Kleene star

The asterisk wildcard character may have been inspired by the Kleene star used in regular expressions, but I have been unable to find any explanation of its origins in either TOPS-10 or Multics so I cannot confirm that idea. There is a family resemblance between the two, but they are different. The Kleene star is a decade older and more flexible than the two asterisk syntaxes discussed above. It takes as an argument a set of elements, and means a name composed of 0 or more of those elements. For example, (ab|cde)* stands for all names which are combinations of the elements ab and cde (including the empty string): ab, cdeabcde, etc.

  • Have never encountered the term "trans*" before but would guess it is pronounced "trans-star". – AllInOne Jul 6 '13 at 0:31
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    @AllInOne It's just pronounced "trans". – AlbeyAmakiir Jul 8 '13 at 22:48
  • Does “the entire gender identity spectrum” mean that this applies evenly across that spectrum? Does it include 'straight'/'heteronormative'? Or, is does it imply 'traditionally underrepresented orientations'/GLBT people/issues? (Sorry if these are not the preferred nomenclature in this context.) So, is the phrase "trans* topics" closer to "gender and orientation topics" or "GLBT topics"? – hunter2 Jul 10 '13 at 4:28
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    @hunter2 Actually, as I've seen it used, it's only ever referred to people who's gender identity and physical sex are different, or who's gender identity or physical sex has changed in some way. I'm... a little fuzzy on the definitions myself, as it doesn't directly relate to me. It's still a wider term than any of the terms it covers, but it's more limited than LGBT (which, itself, only covers the well known terms, the last one being whichever trans* term the reader thinks of at the time). – AlbeyAmakiir Jul 10 '13 at 6:09
  • @AlbeyAmakiir Got it. Makes sense. – hunter2 Jul 10 '13 at 6:43

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