Sometimes it's nice to know where the words we use everyday as programmers actually come from. For example, I can explain how a computer screen relates to a flat material onto which diaporamas used to be projected. I can explain how a computer program relates to the word in the musical domain, where a "program" describes the list of pieces to be played during a show -- everything is planned, written, and unwinds as planned. And so on...

But I struggle to find the intention behind the word "application". I see two possibilities:

  • a theoretical or abstract concept is "applied" to a real-world domain
  • something is "applied onto" something else as a poster is applied onto a wall

So a computer application would be either the useful realization of an abstract/useless idea, or something which is glued onto something else, however neither explaination really makes sense to me.

What is the reason behind an application being called an application?

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    Did you look at the dictionary definition of "Application?" Seems straightforward to me based on the meaning of the word.. – enderland Jun 10 '15 at 20:25
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    @enderland The word "application" has several meanings. Which meaning do you suggest lends itself to the etymology of the word "application" as in "application software"? – RavB Jun 10 '15 at 20:27
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    I rather suspect it's the first; that is, that the program applies the general purpose computer to a specific problem, such as calculating artillery trajectories or breaking encryption cyphers. However, I have no evidence to back this up. Perhaps there are relevant citations in the most recent edition of the OED? I do not have ready access to it. – phoog Jun 10 '15 at 21:50
  • I'm going to bet Apple started it! – Qaz Jun 10 '15 at 22:17
  • "application" is a shorthand of "application software" or "application program". "app" is just a shorthand of "application", though "app" seems to be preferred for mobile apps, probably just for marketing reasons e.g. "app store" – Brandin Jun 10 '15 at 22:50

According to OED, in computing, application was first applied to functions:

A function performed by a computer to meet a specific user requirement

It is similar to the earlier sense of application: an act of putting to use, specific use.

Then, the meaning of application has extended:

(now usually) a program or piece of software designed to perform such a function (as distinct from software which supports the operating system itself).

In computing, it is first recorded in 1959 [OED]:

This approach to a file maintenance application implies that a number, or ‘batch’ of transactions is collected and sorted into the order of the master file.

J. Jeenel, Programming for Digital Computers

Application program is from 1964. [OED]

Application software is from 1966. [OED]


The first time I met the term application as a name for a computer program, it was not a term in its own right yet, but it was almost always used in combination with the name of a software development tool, such as code generator or compiler. For example, there were Oracle Forms applications, or C applications, or COBOL applications. In my memory, the term was most effectively made popular by the salesmen who marketed software development tools for developers. It then caught on, and developers began talking about applications instead of programs, because when they presented their code to users, they soon realized that the users are not impressed by the technology that was applied. Over a rather short period of time, the tool names wore off of the expression, an the word application remained alone. The first times when I noticed that the word was used on its own, it disturbed me. I strongly believed that this was not the right way to use the term. Then I too had to give in to the strange logic of human language.

So once again, the difficulty of understanding an IT term is based on 1) the original use being based on programmer's viewpoint entirely and 2) the transition from a programming term to a general term happened so quickly that neither party realized what just happened.

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    This is a very interesting contribution to the question asked, but I think it would be significantly more helpful, as a practical matter, if you included a time frame for the events that you describe in your answer. Are you talking about the 1970s, the early 1980s, or some other period? – Sven Yargs Nov 15 '17 at 19:19
  • My own experience begins at early 80's, but I am being told that the Finnish equivalence "sovellus" was already in 70's used with various prefixes such as "atk-sovellus" ("atk" here is "automated data processing", a more general term than what I referred to in my original post, but it is just an example). I do not know of an instance without a prefix from that time is the point, however, and Finnish use of "sovellus" has fairly closely followed the English model. – AimoE Nov 15 '17 at 19:47

This is too long for a comment, from Dictionary.com:

  1. The act of putting to a special use or purpose: the application of common sense to a problem.

  2. The special use or purpose to which something is put: a technology having numerous applications never thought of by its inventors.

Source code is put into a special use/purpose (the compiled, executable product).

An application of source code is the executable product.

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    Is this correct? The word "application" is derived from the phrase "application software", which was intended to contrast against "system software" (IE operating system, drivers, etc). Based on your interpretation, system software fall under the umbrella of an "application" which it very specifically should not. – ravibhagw Jun 10 '15 at 20:33
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    I would argue that the "something" being put to use is the computer (or device), not the source code. That would give a slight distinction between application and system software. System software facilitates the use of the computer, but is not necessarily its intended use. – Simon Jun 10 '15 at 21:52
  • Seems far-fetched. Needs reference! – GEdgar Jun 10 '15 at 22:18
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    @RavB: If you run application software, the computer is being applied to solve problems. If you run system software, the computer is not being applied to anything other than itself. While we may view software and computers as completely different objects, this distinction was less clear in the 1960s, when system software was not portable. – Peter Shor Jun 11 '15 at 14:22

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