“Cookie” – The crunchiest term in IT

by | Sep 15, 2017 | Terms from the world of IT explained | 0 comments

Terms from the world of IT explained” is a series of blog posts that explain the origin of common IT terms. We often use them in our daily life, but do we know where they come from?

The second part of this series will explain what a “cookie” is and will give you some background information about the mysterious origins of the term. Almost every website you visit nowadays will ask you to agree with the use of cookies. Usually you just click “Accept” in order not to be bothered again or because otherwise the website doesn’t work properly.

browser cookie illustration with heart and stars

Cookies are little text files that websites send to your browser. They are then saved locally on your PC and track your activity on the website. Your browser can access the cookies and pass the data back to the website. If you visit the same website again, your browser sends the information from the cookie to the website so that they can “remember” you.

This technique is quite useful if you e.g. want to continue with your online shopping and the shop still has your desired items stored in the shopping cart. But it can also be a little bit scary if you visit a website and you see ads that are perfectly tailored to your preferences or show you the exact pair of sneakers you googled yesterday.

Most of you know what cookies are, but do you also know why they have the same name as the crispy sweets?

The term “cookie” for this kind of text files was coined by Lou Montulli, who invented the technology in June 1994. He was a programmer at Netscape Communications in the US and wanted to find a method for the Web to remember specific users. But he was not the first person to use the word “cookie” in the IT sector. Montulli was inspired by the computer science term “magic cookie”, which refers to a technique where small pieces of data are exchanged between programs and used to identify a user or an event.

But this still doesn’t explain why the early programmers called it this. The problem is that all the developers tell their own story. So here are some of the myths around the term “cookie”:

“Cookie Monster” was a computer program which was named after the cookie monster from Sesame Street. The program was used to annoy users by blocking their system and showing a screen which said “Gimme a cookie”. The screen would only go away if you typed in the word “cookie”. Other sources say that this story has nothing to do with the cookies we use today.

Some people think the term “cookie” comes from the Chinese fortune cookies which you get after your meal. “Fortune” is also the name of a UNIX program which gives the user witty sayings like those found if the fortune cookies. Also, like today’s browser cookies, a fortune cookie contains hidden text.

Another logical explanation is the Hansel and Gretel theory. It says that the little text files are called cookies because you leave “cookiecrumbs” in the world wide web like Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs in the dark forest.

These are only some stories about the origin of the term “cookies”. But nobody really knows which one is true. So now it is your turn: which story do you believe?

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