After reading these questions:

and the definition of delete in Oxford:

Remove or obliterate (written or printed matter), especially by drawing a line through it.

I think that delete is only used for line, text, script. It is reasonable that when you get rid the text on the screen, you delete it. But since when was delete also used for files? A file, whether it is physical or digital, is still an object. For example you can't delete a picture hanging on the wall, why can digital pictures be deleted?

Bonus from Ngram for delete: enter image description here

  • 2
    Not really sure what you're asking, but a computer file is not really a physical object. You can't touch it like you can a painting.
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:45
  • But is computer file a digital object?
    – Ooker
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:48
  • 1
    Here's an instance from 1846: He accordingly moved the Court to delete that part of the libel, showing that the usage isn't as recent as OP seems to think. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:50
  • @FumbleFingers I didn't conclude that delete is only used recently.
    – Ooker
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:02
  • 3
    Won't this depend on whether you view a file as a piece of a longer computer memory, like a chapter in a book (I certainly think you can delete a chapter from a book), or whether you view it as an object that stands by itself? In actuality, it's just a piece of a long serial computer memory. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:04

6 Answers 6


A directory is a list of files. When a file is removed, its entry is deleted from that list. On most early operating systems, a directory was actually just a text file given special treatment (users not being allowed to edit them directly), so the removal of the name from the list really was like deleting text from a document.

In fact, the actual release or erasure of the file contents from the storage device may not happen until later. On UNIX systems, deletion of the file's name is not enough to remove the file; a file will not be removed until all of its names have been deleted (on UNIX filesystems, one file may be named in many directories, something it inherited from MULTICS) and no process still has the file open. So there is a distinction between deletion - the removal of a reference to the file - and the actual removal/release of file contents.

  • 2
    Thank you so much. It turns out that early computer scientists really saw the definition of delete can be used in this situation. You cannot delete a file because it's an object, but you can delete its name (that is, the text) on the list.
    – Ooker
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:14
  • 2
    "On most early operating systems, a directory was actually just a text file given special treatment" -- That's not very much different from today. In fact on some systems, the directory file might contain very small files itself rather than simply listing them.
    – Brian S
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 22:16
  • 5
    And yet the Unix command to perform this operation is rm for "remove".
    – jamesdlin
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 22:36
  • 7
    @jamesdlin And the system call is unlink().
    – Riking
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 2:19
  • 1
    Actually, it's more like in the early days of Unix, computer terminals were often little more than glorified typewriters, and remote links were very, very slow. Reducing typing on those served a very real purpose. Being primarily intended for academics and technicians, I suppose ease of use was not a large priority, and tradition has stuck. Consider History of Unix, also the photos. Also at least in modern *nix systems, there is no md or rd for directories; those are DOS (maybe CP/M) inventions. Unix uses mkdir and rmdir respectively.
    – user
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 14:42

Deleting a file is a usage from computer operating systems. In this context, remove is a synonym. Referring to deleting an actual physical file or document would be considered odd or confusing, you'd destroy it, or throw it out, or whatever one can do to a physical object.

The use of the term Delete might come from the fact that when you delete a file in an operating system, you really just remove it's entry from a list of files maintained by the system. It typically doesn't actually destroy the file.

  • 3
    For anyone interested, what is meant by "It typically doesn't actually destroy the file." is that when you delete a file, the data remains until it is overwritten. Deleting just marks the data blocks as available to be overwritten. That's why deleted data can sometimes be recovered by specialists. Off topic but useful to know, at least for me. :)
    – Dom
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:03
  • Funnily enough, its not really that off topic. That is basically what the original term was used for. I.e marking the information as no longer needed but not necessarily removing it. Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 4:56
  • @DumbNic Doesn't need a specialist for that. There is easy to use software available for cheap or free that can scan a disk (even after it has been reformatted, as happened recently to a friend of mine) and recover most of the files. Depending on the type of damage the file names may be gone, but the data generally remains (and is easily accessible) until deliberately or accidentally (by the act of saving something else) overwritten at some later time.
    – user
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 9:30
  • @DumbNic Software failures where data hasn't deliberately been overwritten are generally easy to recover from, and often takes little more than a few tens of dollars worth of software, somewhere to store the recovered data, and being careful while doing it. Check the data-recovery and similar tags on Photography and Super User. It's the actual hardware failures that are costly, because fixing those safely requires specialist knowledge and facilities.
    – user
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 14:28

"to delete" is just the Latin word for to destroy/annihilate/eliminate. It seems in computer language the term to delete has been adopted as standard term for making data vanish.

  • 3
    In language, the sum of the meaning of the roots is not always the meaning of the whole. That is, if you look it as a word borrowed from Latin, it only mean "to destroy", but if you look at it as an English word, it may be used somewhat differently. I suspect that it is "only for text"
    – Ooker
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 20:39
  • @Ooker - You are right, I gave the meaning of the Latin verb. In English delete is mainly used for eliminating written text or a word and computer data. OALD says: to delete sth (from sth) meaning to remove sth that has been written or printed, or that has been stored on a computer.
    – rogermue
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 4:14
  • I wouldn't say "standard" term, but certainly one of many popular terms.
    – Rich
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 20:16

Actually when you say remove then you change position and in case of delete you actually cut out something.e.g,

1)The documents has been removed from that place(the position of documents have been changed may be they are at other place and there is chance to get them back )

2)The documents have been deleted(documents have been destroyed and there is no chance to get them back)


The Oxford dictionary lists three relevant meanings for the verb delete, v., which I'll paraphrase here:

  1. To remove text by striking or blotting out, obliterating, erasing, or expunging; going back to 1605
  2. To erase, expunge, or "wipe out"; going back to 1650
  3. To remove a gramophone record from a catalogue indicating it is no longer for sale; going back to 1937

The application of the latter sense to computer science is pretty direct. The company can remove access to the record by eliminating a line from its catalogue; the filesystem can remove access to the file by eliminating a "line" from its directory.

This is by no means the only term used for this action. As noted elsewhere, remove, and unlink are used, as are erase, and trash. In the desktop paradigm, there's also the clumsier verb phrase move to wastebasket or ... trash. Colloquially, people might also use the verbs kill, lose, drop, etc.

Note: many people can use a library card number to access full Oxford dictionary entries


I believe the terminology comes from proofreading and copy-editing. One of the early uses of interactive computers by people without scientific or engineering backgrounds was word processing, particularly at newspapers and magazines. Delete is the word used by editors to refer to the action of striking out text to indicate that it should be removed, so this was presumably adopted by the programmers of word processors and text editors when creating menus and other command lists. The use of the word then expanded to refer to analogous actions in other contexts, such as removing whole files.

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