The Grammarphobia Blog

Ups and downs of cyberspace

Q: Why do you think computer information is “uploaded” to a network and “downloaded” from one? Why should the network be above us?

A: The verbs “upload” and “download” are defined somewhat differently in various dictionaries. But generally the term “upload” means to transfer data from a smaller computer to a larger, often remote one. And the term “download” means to transfer data from a larger, often remote computer to a smaller one.

Why “up” and “down,” rather than “left” and “right,” or “in” and “out,” or whatever?

Well, many people think of computer networks, especially the Internet, as somewhere up there in the ether – that is, in cyberspace. And networks are often arranged in a hierarchy, with the important computers on top and the subordinate ones below. But I suspect the answer to your question is more etymological than geographical, technical, or philosophical.

The verb “upload,” meaning to load up, has been with us for almost a century and a half, well before anyone ever thought of uploading computer data.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1870, is in a poem by William Barnes: Low-headed horses slowly hail / The newly-made hay, uploaded high.

The OED’s first published reference for “upload” used with computer information is in a 1977 article in Aviation Week & Space Technology: “The joint program office … uploaded navigation data into the satellite by readjusting the phasing of the pseudo random noise signal employed by the navigation system.”

Interestingly, Aviation Week had used the term a year before in the older way in reference to loading a C-130 airplane: “At present most C-5C-141 pallets have to be reconfigured prior to uploading the C-130, particularly the two pallet spaces in the wheel-well area.”

So it seems to me that the digital use of “upload” probably evolved from the analog term. We can see similar evolutions with “cut,” “paste,” “spam,” “send,” “attach,” “clipboard,” and so on.

The first citation in the OED for the verb “download” is in a 1980 article in Electronic Design: “These programs are downloaded into the Microsystem Analyzer for debug and execution.”

I suspect, therefore, that the term “download” is a natural outgrowth of “upload.” But if anyone out there (or up there) in the ether has a better explanation, please let me know.

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