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I learned the asterisk character is the reason splatbooks are named such (from *books). However, I've been unable to find any specifics on who started pronouncing * as "splat". I know it's not very common now (more people, myself included, say "star"), but it was popular enough with programmers and gamers in the early to mid nineties, and was used in 1990 in the poem Waka Waka Bang Splat.

What group or groups started saying * as "splat"? When was this at its height?

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  • What else would you call it?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 2:16
  • (I can attest that it was often called "splat" when I was in engineering school ca 1970. And "!" was called "bang".)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 2:17
  • 1
    It should be noted that different companies and technical specialties had different terms for these characters. IBM might use one set (they always had weird rules), Xerox another, DEC yet another. And the TTY operators and ham radio guys had their own terms as well.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 3:16
  • I call it "star," and hadn't heard "splat" before reading it on the linked page. (! is still "bang", though.) I know different places use different names; I wanted to know which places used splat.
    – ATayloe
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 11:40
  • There were computers around from 4-5 different manufacturers when I was in E school, and profs who had backgrounds from several more. There's no telling where "splat" came from, but it was the accepted term in the computer lab. But then, for the IBM control language on punch cards, we mostly said "slash asterisk" when /* was used. At least that's what I remember. (The "bang" was the control character in Xerox card decks.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 12:07

2 Answers 2

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References: http://ss64.com/jargon.html http://ss64.com/bash/syntax-pronounce.html

" \!* " is pronounced bash-bang-splat

SPLAT n. 1. Name used in many places (DEC, IBM, and others) for the ASCII star ("*") character. 2. (MIT) Name used by some people for the ASCII pound-sign ("#") character. 3. (Stanford) Name used by some people for the Stanford/ITS extended ASCII circle-x character. (This character is also called "circle-x", "blobby", and "frob", among other names.) 4. (Stanford) Name for the semi-mythical extended ASCII circle-plus character. 5. Canonical name for an output routine that outputs whatever the the local interpretation of splat is. Usage: nobody really agrees what character "splat" is, but the term is common.

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    +1 for 5.... I don't think it asked me that when I was installing Ubuntu the other day...
    – Jim
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 6:15
  • This is helpful, but doesn't go into detail about when and where it started, or when it was at its peak.
    – ATayloe
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 11:39
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The name “splat” for the * character was coined by Don Woods, Jim Lyon and/or an unnamed friend. Woods and Lyon are the authors of INTERCAL, the first programming language that was designed to be obfuscated. INTERCAL had joke names for all the punctuation characters used by the language. The first publication was thus probably the INTERCAL programming language reference manual (Table 2 “INTERCAL character set” near the end)¹, published in 1973; most of the character name date back to May 1972.

The encoding of some of the characters in the original text-only document is mangled. (It was originally written in some EBCDIC variant.) The C-INTERCAL manual has a table with the intended rendering.

According to Don Woods in a 2008 interview:

My recollection, though fuzzy after all these years, is that we and another friend had spent an earlier late-night bull session coming up with alternative names for spoken punctuation (spot, spark, spike, splat, wow, what, etc.)

A 2020 interview with Don Woods has some complementary information:

In truth, it all began with the renamed punctuation. I no longer recall what specifically led the conversation down that path, but we were trying to come up with names that all sounded alike/alliterative, so that reading a line of code became a sort of tongue twister. I think the "sp" terms were first: spot, spark, splat (for period, apostrophe, and asterisk), and then we added other silliness such as the embrace/bracelet pair.

The likely origin for “splat” came from the existing onomatopoeia: it's (one possibility for) the sound of an insect being squished on a piece of paper, and the * character looks like an insect that's been squished on the paper. This etymology is suggested in the Jargon File entry for splat. I'm not aware of an explicit statement by Woods on this topic, but it may have been a well-known fact in hacker circles, and it would fit the theme of naming characters after their appearance (“mesh” for #, “half-mesh” for =, “rabbit ears” for " (". superimposed is the full rabbit), “shark (or simply sharkfin)” for ^, etc.).

It's likely that more than one person made that joke about a character looking like a squished bug, since in addition to * (“DEC, IBM, and others”), the Jargon File documents “splat” as being used for # (MIT) and (Stanford).

The INTERCAL specification is probably how “splat” got to be somewhat known among programming language designers, and is still in use today in some programming language communities. But it isn't a commonly known name outside of a few communities. I suspect that a majority of people who know the name are Ruby programmers.

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  • I'm not entirely sure if we can trust the creators of INTERCAL, but this is a good story anyway.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 16 at 21:53

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