For example, Google Chrome has a version called Chrome Canary where changes are made to allow errors to be identified, before the changes are released into the main version of Chrome.

Where did this use of the word in software originate and what was the first use? This useage is clearly based on the idea of a canary in a coal mine that was used to detect gas because canaries are highly sensitive.


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    Quite possibly, the reference at “Canary in coal mine” in a word will not be bettered. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 '17 at 23:15
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    Aw, come on, let's have someone dig a little deeper! Isn't that the idea of this community? Someone must have been the first to start applying a mining analogy to software development... but who?!? – user2330237 Jun 13 '17 at 5:31
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    A "canary" is not just an "early version" but one that is pushed only to a small group of end users (possibly unaware) in order to run a "canary test", part of a phased or incremental rollout. The name was chosen precisely to invoke the coal mine allegory. whatis.techtarget.com/definition/canary-canary-testing – Jeffrey Kemp Jun 13 '17 at 7:44
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    Why don't you dig a little deeper? Getting others to do research is not the aim of ELU. Finding others with the relevant knowledge base, certainly. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 '17 at 22:18
  • Certain many software developers in the US would have been familiar with the "canary in a coal mine" and might have chosen that analogy for a test release that is expected to "attract" problems. Another term that might have been chosen for the general concept is "lightning rod", but "canary" would tend to be preferred from several standpoints. – Hot Licks Jun 14 '17 at 0:12

This is a "you'd have to ask them" answer. The earliest use of 'canary' with reference to computing that I could find is a bit suggestive, but only that.

On 21 July 2010, Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico; paywalled) reported that Sandia National Laboratories had won one of R&D Magazine's (R&D for "Research and Development") "Oscar of Innovation" awards for software called CANARY, "that immediately detects contamination by analyzing signals from networked sensors".

According to Wikipedia, on 22 July 2010, that is, one day after the Albuquerque Journal reported the award given to Sandia's CANARY software, "Google announced it would ramp up the speed at which it releases new stable versions...This faster release cycle also brought a fourth channel: the 'Canary' channel". The introduction of the "Canary" channel was evidently reported 23 July 2010 in a web page by Lee Mathews titled "Google drops Chrome Canary build down the Chrome mineshaft" (cited at Wikipedia but no longer accessible).

While the coincidence is likely to be nothing more than that, coincidence, it is possible the Sandia software and "Oscar of Innovation" award suggested the name for the Chrome release channel. You'd have to ask them.

My other results were negative. While 'Chrome' is 29th in the frequency-sorted list of collocates (at a distance of four or fewer words left or right from 'canary') of 'canary' in the NOW corpus (2010-present), 'software', 'release', 'version', 'channel' and 'program' do not appear in the frequency list of the top 500 collocates. None of those terms (including 'Chrome') appear in the list of the top 500 collocates of 'canary' provided by COCA (1990-2015).

Newspaper archive searches were also negative, although the 'canary version' is the name of one fictionalized version of an unsolved 1920s murder — a case which, I mention irrelevantly, engendered the term 'sugar daddy'. The 'canary version' was also the name given by a reporter to his flight of fancy regarding a 1933 production of "Il Signor Bruschino", "an early Rossini exasperation". Other mentions of 'canary' in US papers were equally irrelevant.

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  • @HotLicks, you didn't see where the OP declared he was aware of that origin, or you don't think I should respect it? He seems to be looking for the origin and first use "in software". – JEL Jun 13 '17 at 15:55

A canary in programming is a word or value stored in memory at the end of a buffer. If the buffer was overwritten, it would be the canary that would be the first item in memory to be overwritten. Thus by checking the canary, the program could determine if there had been a buffer overflow and isolate the issue.

So while it is likely this original canary term came from the canary in a cave it seems reasonable to believe that Chrome's Canary release could also be named for this particular programming construct since both are designed to serve a similar purpose in software, namely to quickly identify issues.

Food for thought.

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