The origins, or etymology, of the "Internet"

On the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list Tamara Paradis raised the question of the origins of the term “Internet”. I am not sure why, but I am always drawn to questions like this – perhaps it is my historical sensibility. For some reason, I enjoy going through old documents to find the origins of terms. For instance, in 1999 as a complement to my work on the intersection of law and computer design, I wondered how technicians came to talk about computer proxies and agents, common terms from contract law. So, I researched The Etymology of “Agent” and “Proxy” in Computer Networking Discourse. Similarly, as a complement to work on how informal norms in the form of quotations about the Internet govern, I researched the provenance of many famous quotations such as “Inside every working anarchy, there’s an Old Boy Network.”

So, I thought I would share some of my notes on the “Internet.” Vint Cerf (2000) is fond of talking about how the merging of ARPANET, PRNET, and SATNET were known as the “‘inter-net’ problem.” However, I’ve not found much documentation of that.

What I have found is that the terms “international”, “internet”, and “internetwork” were used rather interchangeably throughout the 1970s, they couldn’t even settle on what to call it, or what ITP stood for:

  • Cerf (1973), A partial specification of an International Transmission Protocol which specifies a International Transmission Protocol (ITP) implemented via TCP.
  • Cerf, Dalal and Sunshine (1974), Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program.
  • Cerf (1977), IEN #5: Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program: TCP (Version 2), which uses the term Internet, but otherwise speaks about Internetwork.
  • Cerf and Postel (1978), Specification of Internetwork Transmission Control Program: TCP, Version 3, which simplifies TCP by breaking out IP into a separate specification, but then goes back to using “Internetwork”.

In version 3 (1978) because IP was split out of TCP, and was unambiguously referred to as Internet Protocol, I think that’s when the term began to stick. However, there’s more ambiguity on the details and versioning of these specs, so it’s not as easy as that!

Ported/Archived Responses

Tamara Paradis on 2007-04-20

I was interested in the origin of the term Internet because I find it interesting how we personalize the Internet and the World Wide Web by treating them as proper nouns, hence possessing a personality of their own. Yet we don’t do the same thing to telephone networks, for example. I am considering working on a paper that deals with whether the Internet has become a brand name of sorts, or whether the according of a proper name status to the net is an indication of some kind of reification at work.

You posted some excellent references on the background of the term. It sounds like you ran into the same brick wall I did though – there doesn’t seem to be any specific documentation on how/why the internets became a single meta Internet.

Joseph Reagle on 2007-04-20

I think your characterization might be the reverse though. These used to be capitalized proper nouns, specific things with their own features, and now they are being “genericized.”

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