LINGUIST List 9.309

Tue Mar 3 1998

Sum: 'cookies'

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. monika.bruendl, Summary: 'cookies'

Message 1: Summary: 'cookies'

Date: Mon, 2 Mar 1998 17:13:23 +0000
From: monika.bruendl <>
Subject: Summary: 'cookies'

Summary: 'Cookies'

Thanks to the many people who responded to my query as to the
(metaphorical) meaning of the computer term 'cookie'. As so many of
you responded, it's impossible for me to list everybody's message, so
I'll sum up the main points instead.

Most of you said that cookie comes from a program invented at MIT
around 1970 called 'Cookie Monster' after the cookie monster from
Sesame Street. 
Rich Alderson writes: >>The computer term "cookie" is
derived, by means of a joke, from the Children's Television Workshop
program _Sesame Street_. Many people are familiar with the Cookie
Monster character and his unending search for cookies, in which he
will say to anyone (often annoyingly) "Give me a cookie!" There was a
computer program, first written for the DECSYSTEM-20, called COOKIE. 
When run on an unsuspecting person's account, it would from time to
time break in to whatever they were doing and demand "Give me a
cookie!" If the person typed "cookie" on the keyboard, the program
went back to sleep. Anything else typed would result in a repeated
"Give me a cookie!" The computer security term "cookie" for something
given on demand to a remote host grew metaphorically from this
practical joke program. It extended in sense from there to Web
browsers and other programs.<< 
Related terms are "magic cookie","fortune cookie". A lot of you 
think that 'cookie' is a shortened form of 'magic cookie'. Karen 
Courtenay writes: >>The term cookies draws from a unix/programming 
concept of "magic cookies" also sometimes referred to as tokens. 
Tokens is perhaps a better term. In some ways a cookie is like a 
Passport that gets stamped as you enter various territories. Cookies 
are something a server gives to a client. And the client may show the 
information back to the server on subsequent pages, actions or 

Thanks for everybody else who gave a similar explanation: Patrick
Juola, Susanne Riehemann, Scott Waterman, Stephen Spackman, Gabor
Fencsik, Martha McGinnis, Donald Pfister, John M. Lawler, John D.
Stone and others. More information can be found at e.g. (The Hacker's Dictionary, for
definitions of cookie, magic cookie, fortune cookie etc.),

2. Metaphorical meanings
(a) cookies are like prizes, bribes:
Sam Salt writes: >>A cookie is something you give to a child when
he/she has been good. However, it may have strings attached - you 
only get a cookie if you are good. So the child is being bribed. A 
better strategy in the long run might be to reject the cookie and 
remain independent. Cookies in the computing sense are fairly 
similar.<< So cookies are kinds of prizes one gets in exchange for 
doing sth (giving information). 
Mitch Smith writes: >> The user must grant the server access to the 
client's internal workings, hence "accepting" (and swallowing) the 
"cookie". The fact that, here in mondo-reality, cookies taste good 
and don't generally phone home after being eaten helps to disguse the 
fact that the user is being asked to compromise his/her system's 
security, thus making the idea more "palatable". This technique is 
fairly conventional in that it is analogous to the practice of giving 
preshcoolers their polio vaccine on a sugar cube or hiding Rover's 
heart-worm pill in a meatball.<< The following people came up with 
similar explanations: Mike Fox, John Braico, Tom McMillan.

(b) Haensel & Gretel: leaving a trail of crumbs 
Dan Loehr writes: >> The metaphor is that of leaving a trail of cookie
crumbs, so that you can follow them home (i.e. easily get back to
where you started). Thus, the computer "crumb" of information you
leave behind lets the web browser find out who you are. I think the
idea of leaving a trail of crumbs started in fairy tales (i.e.Hansel
and Gretel). At any rate, it's an infrequently-used metaphor to say
"Leave a trail of crumbs behind you" so you can return to a job or a
hometown after you've been gone a while. It doesn't necessarily have
to be cookie crumbs, I guess.<< Victoria Bergvall gave a similar

(c) Client-server:
Retta Whinnery writes: >> The server generally "serves" the cookies to
the client. That is, the server makes the cookies based on the
information provided by the client and, then, "passes" the cookies to
the client computer.>>

(d) cookie jar:
Jason Haugen suggests the following cookie metaphor: 
>> website = Cookie Jar; cookie = something taken from the cookie jar

(e) more metaphors: Retta Whinnery wrote:
>> 1. A cookie is an "enticement" to get a computer user to visit
 your site. It collects information about your preferences and 
customizes the site accordingly. It's a sweet way to make sure the 
user gets satisfaction from the site. 2. A cookie has an "expiration 
date" just like the edible ones we purchase in stores. 3. A cookie 
is small; it cannot be larger than 4K. 4. The maximum number of 
cookies that can be on one client is 20, a few more than a dozen, but 
about the same number of edible cookies that come in a package. (5.) 
The site that is customized by a cookie takes on a certain "flavor" 
that the user likes. <<

(f) more food metaphors:
Retta Whinnery wrote: >> Cookies are commonly used in Java and
JavaScript, the programming languages "invented?" by Steve Coffey. 
Some people have said that the language "Java" was named after a
coffee shop; however, that is incorrect. It was named after its
inventor: Coffey. Along with this are many other food metaphors:
 cookies and coffee
 hooked on Java
 juicy applets (these are small applications, but it sounds like
 small apples)
Apple Computers also used many food metaphors: Macintosh (a type of
edible apple as well as a brand of computers)<< 
Robert Timms alsomentioned 'cookies and coffee' and 'Java' in this 
Lynn S. Messing about Easter Eggs: >>For example, an Easter egg might 
pop up if you go to a "Help" menu, click on the "About..." sub-menu, 
and then click a certain part of the window that pops up. The Easter 
egg might list the developers of the program. Easter eggs are so 
called because they are surprises that you usually have to go hunting 
for to find.<<

Thanks to Elke Hentschel and Tom McMillan for drawing the attention to
the fact that the definition I gave ("Cookies are bits of computer
code that allow a Web page's operators to collect information about
each user for later reference.", from 'Among The New Words' in
American Speech) was inaccurate: >>The cookies are the 'data', not
'bits of computer code' (where do they find these people to define
computer terms?). There is certainly code written to get cookies, but
it is the data itself which is the prize, so to speak...<< (Tom

Well, thanks again to all of you who responded - maybe I'll quote one
or two of you in my PhD dissertation ( about the language, esp. the
metaphors, of computing). If you're interested in any details, please 
do not hesitate to contact me.
Kind regards,

Monika Br\252ndl, Munich, Germany
T: -89-2609865
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