Does "difference is transparent" mean something like invisible, not apparent?

For example: "Like a char device, each block device is accessed through a filesystem node, and the difference between them is transparent to the user."

Does the above line mean that user doesn't see any difference between the char and block devices?

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    "Transparent to the user" is an idiom meaning "the user can't tell the difference".
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 15, 2015 at 20:34
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    Yes, it does mean that the user cannot see the difference between the two. Theoretically, if you look at something that is truly transparent, you don't see it. Transparent is often used in this meaning in IT-related environments.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 15, 2015 at 20:35
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    Good question. This type of figurative transparent can have either of two completely opposite senses - invisible (user cannot discern any difference), and clear, obvious (user cannot fail to be aware of the difference). But in your specific context it's virtually certain the former is the intended sense. Aug 15, 2015 at 20:36
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    @Edwin: But both usages/meanings are "commonplace/general". Aug 15, 2015 at 20:42
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    @Lavya - Elsewhere "transparent" refers to a component that sits between two endpoints and relays data/events back and forth in such a way that the component's presence cannot be detected. The "mild abuse" is using "transparent" to mean that a difference between two components cannot be detected. While this slight shift in sense might seem obvious to someone analyzing the English words, it could easily befuddle some literalist programmers.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 15, 2015 at 20:43

1 Answer 1


"Transparent" is used in several senses. The most literal sense is Capable of transmitting light so that objects or images can be seen as if there were no intervening material. Ie, a piece of regular glass is "transparent".

The common figurative sense is quite the opposite: easily understood; manifest; obvious.

If one were to take literally the sentence "The senator's written statements are totally transparent" it would imply that you could not see them at all, but the figurative sense of the term (and it's antonym "opaque") is flipped 180 degrees, and that sentence means that the Senator's thoughts and intentions can be easily discerned.

Computers, on the other hand, take things pretty literally, and therefore "transparent" is typically used in the literal sense when speaking of computers and data communcations. So if "Component X is transparent" then it's implied that the presence of "Component X" is not readily obvious, even though it may stand "in the way" of communications between two other components.

Similarly, saying that "the difference between X and Y is transparent to the user" implies that one can be substituted for the other without changing the "optical properties", as it were, of the overall system -- what you could see before you can still see.

It's not computer terminology that's screwed up, it's the rest of English.


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