Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why Plover?

I first came up with the idea of learning how to program by writing open source steno software more than three years ago. I've been geeky all my life. I've been an internet addict since I first discovered Gopher and Usenet in '93. As a teenager, I spent my time reading The Jargon File, watching Sneakers, and calling up every BBS in my area code repeatedly and obsessively. I steeped my brain in old-school cyberpunk and thought somehow that coding knowledge would come to me automatically, by osmosis. Never happened. Both my brothers and many of my friends are programmers, but somehow I never wound up actually sitting my butt down and teaching myself how to code. Now I'm pushing 30, making a good living at something I love, but I feel my brain getting slower and less plastic every year, and so at long last I'm taking steps to fix the mistake I made in my youth. I'm learning Python, one hour a week, and in the process I'm making something that might do some good for a fair number of people.

I'm planning a post that'll talk about the various things I think Plover might be good for, but for now I just want to talk briefly about how the project got its name. I remember walking around Fort Tryon Park, trying to think up something snappy, easy on the ears, not too flashy, that actually had something to do with stenography. At first I was fond of Stentor, but it turned out to be taken already. I tried anagrams of "stenotype" and "stenographer" but got only "Testy Peon" and "Nasty Gopher", neither of which inspired me. I thought I'd go to the great natural philosopher Nicolas Steno, but when I proposed naming my program after his Latin name, Stenonis, my better half quite rightly laughed herself senseless.

Finally I decided that, since none of the obvious "This is a program about steno!" names seemed to work, I'd come up with a name wasn't necessarily related to steno, but which could be used to show how insanely cool steno actually was, once you figured out how it worked. I wanted to show the powerful, flexible ambiguity of the keyboard, the way a single chord could translate to "slung" or "shrunk", "apple" or "amp", "squarer" or "sierra", "castle" or "cavil". I wanted to show how a single steno stroke could represent two syllables and half a dozen letters. I also wanted it to sound distinctive and useful, a word that was familiar enough not to sound alien, but not so common that it was mundane.

Finally I hit on it: PHROFR. In most steno dictionaries, the steno outline "PHROFR" is defined as "moreover". PH- is pronounced as "M", and the "R-OFR" bit sounds pretty much the way it looks; put them together and you get mrovr, which is easy enough to parse. But because HR- can also be pronounced as "L", PHROFR is also the way you stroke the word "plover", a charming little wading bird of the subfamily Charadriinae. Court reporters use the word "moreover" a lot more than normal people do, because it's used so often in legal contexts. Since I intended to write the first steno program that almost entirely neglected the very specific needs of court reporters (sorry, guys), I thought that using the zoological rather than the legal reading of the stroke would not be out of place.

Plover is also one of those words that's not pronounced the way it's spelled. It's PLUH-VER rather than PLOE-VER, and the idea of using a non-phonetic word for a phonetically based system amused me. Finally, there's the whole obnoxious Web 2.0 trend of naming programs after random verbs and then adding an -R to the end without an intervening E, and it drives me mad. I figured Plover would be my way of fighting back; it sounded like a helpful utility to use whenever you needed to get some serious plovving done (whatever that might mean) but it was a proper English word, with a proper -ER ending instead of the ubiquitous tacked-on -R.

So... Plover. One stroke, two syllables. Counter-intuitive pronunciation to give the in-crowd a feeling of leetness. Cuddly little bird logo just waiting to be drawn. It might not be hard-bitten and foreboding like what I would have chosen back in the '90s, when I dreamed of being a teenaged gargoyle; but now that I'm grown up and boring, I think it'll do quite nicely.

14 comments:

brainwane said...

I am ashamed to say that until now I assumed the pronunciation was "PLOE-ver"!

x said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Dawson said...

Aha! I've been wondering about the name. I'd figured it was portmanteau for "python lover"

(sorry the deleted comment was me. I was trying to put my name instead of "x")

Mirabai Knight said...

Hee! Well, I am definitely an avowed Python lover, though I admit Python is the only programming language I have any experience in. It's beautiful, logical, and readable; who wouldn't love it? Plovers (the birds) are notorious for being the ones that clean the teeth of crocodiles, so I thought of trying to put a logo together of a plover cleaning the teeth of a python, but soon gave up the idea as just a bit too silly.

Sonja said...

I'm working on some logo concepts and willl get back to you.

Mirabai Knight said...

Sonja: you're a linguist, a translator, and a graphic designer? Is there anything you can't do?

Thomas Thurman said...

I had assumed it was named because "PLOVER" was a magic word in Colossal Cave (the original adventure game). Its purpose was to take you to the Plover Room, which if I remember correctly was so called because there was an emerald there the size of a plover's egg.

Google tells me that this is something of an in-joke.

(Here via Sumana's blog post about the program.)

Mirabai Knight said...

That's really funny. I was a huge Sierra fan as a kid and loved Hero's Quest (before it was Quest for Glory), but never played Colossal Cave. I just downloaded the ADVENT executable from that site linked off the Colossal Cave Wikipedia entry, though, and I'm gonna try to play through it when I get a chance. I love text adventures. Thanks!

Jed said...

Ditto what Sumana and Thomas Thurman said--I too have always pronounced it wrong (though my dictionary lists PLOE-ver as a secondary pronunciation), and I too assumed you were referencing Colossal Cave.

Mirabai Knight said...

I've since heard many people who insist that PLOE-ver is the accepted pronunciation in their neck of the woods, so I'll defer to them (but still keep pronouncing it PLUH-ver, 'cause nyah).

It pleases me that I unwittingly named my program after an in-joke from an obscure '80s text adventure. It seems appropriate, somehow. Now I've just got to do my homework and play through the game so it doesn't look like I'm co-opting the fame. (';

Anonymous said...

There is also, of course, Plover, WI (pronounced ploever).

The Cornishman said...

XYZZY !

Plover looks good, keep it up, and good luck.

stib said...

Where I grew up 'Plover' was the common name for the Masked Lapwing (AKA Spur Winged Plover, because, yes spurs on the wings). These birds have terrorised children in Tasmania for probably fifty thousand years, because of their ferocious swooping behaviour. In spring adults will defend their nests by attacking anything or anyone they don't like the looks of. http://bit.ly/2dXMEkL

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