Why do we say save the file/image instead of keep/preserve the file/image? Is it because the original meaning was to save (rescue) the object from being lost?


As always with etymologies of computer related terms I have turned to the jargon file.

Now, though it does not have a mention of the term specifically, it does describe following (you can read only the highlighted part):

:Conway's Law: prov.

The rule that the organization of the software and the organization of the software team will be congruent; commonly stated as "If you have four groups working on a compiler, you'll get a 4-pass compiler". The original statement was more general, "Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations." This first appeared in the April 1968 issue of {Datamation}. Compare {SNAFU principle}.

The law was named after Melvin Conway, an early proto-hacker who wrote an assembler for the Burroughs 220 called SAVE. (The name `SAVE' didn't stand for anything; it was just that you lost fewer card decks and listings because they all had SAVE written on them.) There is also Tom Cheatham's amendment of Conway's Law: "If a group of N persons implements a COBOL compiler, there will be N-1 passes. Someone in the group has to be the manager."

So, possibly the term save was chosen because it was possibly already used for the punch cards to separate the ones that need to be stored, kept, preserved...

  • 2
    I started as a programmer using punched cards. We didn't talk about saving them - we just kept them. And I don't remember writing either SAVE or KEEP on any given deck. But we often used to write our initials on particular cards to dissuade other programmers from pinching the more re-usable ones. – FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 16:57
  • @FumbleFingers, Burroughs 220 is from late 50s. As Barrie reports OED says that 'save' was used since 1961 in the computer sense. Assuming you used punched cards in later years, after the term was established, I would say that the fact that you did not use this terminology does not substract much from the likelyhood (which is not high anyway) that the above lore is relevant. – Unreason Oct 24 '11 at 18:26
  • I don't doubt that some sites used the word "save" much earlier than me, though I kinda doubt those "protected" decks were a factor. I'm just saying it wasn't necessarily widespread terminology, and it certainly wasn't used in the couple of places I used card decks in the early 70s. – FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 21:12
  • Unreason, FumbleFingers: 'Save' for writing to disk was used at least as early as 1971 at MIT (and in 1968 possibly for tape). Save was already used to refer to saving variables or information in a list in memory. I couldn't find any references relating save to punched cards. – Hugo Oct 25 '11 at 5:31

Saving is different from preserving or keeping in computer science; data that has not been saved has not been written to persistent memory. In reality this is a writing operation but "save" has been used to express the meaning to a less technical crowd. Save means to write the file to your computer in a way that will persist; "keeping" the data where it is before the save operation is actually not saving or writing the data.

You are not keeping or preserving because the data exists only in volatile memory, you can keep or preserve it in volatile memory but it is not written to a permanent location. You could think of the data as being saved from being lost when the volatile memory is lost, which happens each time the computer shuts down .

The Free Dictionary has a helpful Computer Science related definition of Save:

  1. Computer Science To copy (a file) from a computer's main memory to a storage medium.
  • 2
    +1: data can be "written" to many places in the computer world. Not all of them will survive a loss of power (whether accidental or purposeful). To "save" is to write the data to a persistent digital storage mechanism, which does not depend on the computer running or even having power to maintain the copy. To "print" is to write the data in some human-readable text or graphical form, either on a computer monitor or (more commonly) paper. – KeithS Oct 24 '11 at 20:12

The OED’s first citation for the use of save in this sense is from 1961. There are several earlier uses of the verb which could have influenced the choice. They include:

To keep, protect or guard (a thing) from damage, loss, or destruction.

To keep intact or unhurt, preserve, maintain, safeguard (honour, credit, chastity, and the like).

To store, preserve, keep in sound condition.


As some of the others have pointed out, "save" does indeed mean to store it to persistent disk memory. However, that still doesn't explain why someone chose the word "save" for that activity, as opposed to "keep", "store", "preserve" or "persist".

While I cannot find any evidence as to the actual origin, I would put out the possibility that "save" was selected simply because it sounded cooler :)

It may sound flippant, but I'm being entirely serious. Engineers in my experience are fond of making word choices for purely aesthetic reasons, and "save" was coined long before the days when User Experience design and natural domain language came into vogue.

Also consider some of the variant forms, like "autosave" and "unsaved". Autokeep? Unpreserved? They would work just as well grammatically, but they don't exactly roll off the tongue.

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