Steve Lohr, who reports on technology, business and economics for the New York Times, has a nice column in their Bits technology blog called “The Origins of ‘Big Data’: An Etymological Detective Story.” The conclusion is straightforward enough—”The term Big Data, which spans computer science and statistics/econometrics, probably originated in the lunch-table conversations at Silicon Graphics in the mid-1990s, in which John Mashey figured prominently”—but getting there is most of the fun, and I recommend reading the whole thing (which prominently features my man Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, the only quote book worth getting). Thanks, Paul!


  1. I still don’t really understand the meaning of ‘Big Data’, although I’m glad to know about it if people are using it. It doesn’t seem to follow Big Oil; I would have expected it to be a collective noun for companies like HP & Google. When did these Bigs start? There’s a Victorian thing in England of calling the 1st & 2nd school rugby XVs ‘Big Side’, and the upper years ‘Big School’. I always considered them snobbish English shibboleths and refused to use them, although there’s probably something more interesting behind it.

  2. Ahoy, Crown: at primary school we called secondary school “Big Boys’ School”. Why we didn’t say “Muckle Chiels’ School” I can’t imagine.

  3. Yes, that was a missed opportunity, but at least you got your apostrophes in the right place.

  4. I don’t know what muckle chiels are but there are four google links to them, including LADS OF 16 they may be, but some muckle chiels play in Forfar and District Amateur League. Maybe that’s why the referee had to caution five players when Renton played Swifts at the end of December and Thursday, February 01, 1798… neebour wij his never that here I tunc my To Nature’s The ay o’ Yule Wad fing fat fhe has Fan muckle chiels wad been on ilka coal-black Gin it be true that fowk …, so it’s probably football.

  5. OED has big business (1905), big government (1925), big science (1948), big oil (1963), and various others of the multinational big oil variety (big pharma, big agriculture, big energy, big tobacco, etc.). Of these, I suppose big data most resembles big science (“scientific research on a large scale, as regards targets, resources, personnel, etc.”).

  6. And for a good discussion of what big data means these days, see Geoff Nunberg’s Fresh Air piece from December (it was his Word of the Year).

  7. Thanks very much, Ben. Interesting that big government was such an early coinage. I wonder if it was intended to be derogatory back then. Big business is doubtless the first, probably took off during WW1, and by 1932 was the bull in Cold Comfort Farm.

  8. Thanks to the Great Firewall I can’t read that article on Big Data. Contrary to AJP’s discussion, however, I would suspect that it is related to Big Brother (from ‘1984’). Does the article mention that?

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