A great resource for non-native English speakers studying computing

I have been teaching this semester in Beijing. The language of instruction is English but most of my students are not fluent – improving English is part of the program here. Two of my modules are CS1 and Computer Organization. Early on in this semester in both courses I encouraged students to look up a few terms in the Free Online Dictionary of Computing (foldoc.org). Little did I know then that I would end up referring to FOLDOC almost every week.

Started in 1985 by Denis Howe, FOLDOC is an online, searchable, encyclopedic dictionary, currently containing nearly 15,000 definitions. It also includes cross-references and pointers to related resources elsewhere on the Internet, as well as bibliographical references to paper publications.

What I really like about FOLDOC is its simplicity, and that the definitions are pointedly context-based, specifically describing what words mean in the context of computing. I never really thought about it until recently, but in computing we use many words in ways that can be quite far from their ‘normal’ meanings. Take for instance the word load. Computing people happily abuse this word using it often and with several meanings. The Merriam Webster Dictionary has these ‘simple definitions’ for load:

1. something that is lifted and carried

2. an amount that can be carried at one time : an amount that fills something (such as a truck)

3. the weight that is carried or supported by something

None of the other ‘full definitions’ mention anything like those that FOLDOC gives:


1. To copy data (often program code to be run) into memory, possibly parsing it somehow in the process. E.g. “WordPerfect can’t load this RTF file – are you sure it didn’t get corrupted in the download?” Opposite of save.

2. The degree to which a computer, network, or other resource is used, sometimes expressed as a percentage of the maximum available. E.g. “What kind of CPU load does that program give?”, “The network’s constantly running at 100% load”. Sometimes used, by extension, to mean “to increase the level of use of a resource”. E.g. “Loading a spreadsheet really loads the CPU”. See also: load balancing.

3. To install a piece of software onto a system. E.g. “The computer guy is gonna come load Excel on my laptop for me”. This usage is widely considered to be incorrect.

FOLDOC is pretty comprehensive too. Writing this post I hit ‘random’ on the site, and it brought me to the definition of CACM:

Communications of the ACM

(publication) A monthly publication by the Association for Computing Machinery sent to all members. CACM is an influential publication that keeps computer science professionals up to date on developments. Each issue includes articles, case studies, practitioner oriented pieces, regular columns, commentary, departments, the ACM Forum, technical correspondence and advertisements.


Then I googled CACM. The CACM we know and love is the 5th hit, and unless you know what ACM stands for,  the first page of results isn’t much help if you are looking to find what CACM means or stands for (in a computing context). I wish that someone gave me such a brief synopsis of CACM when I was starting out.

Other good entries for ‘normal’ English words whose computing definitions are not easily found on the net are iteration and volatile:


(programming)   Repetition of a sequence of instructions. A fundamental part of many algorithms. Iteration is characterised by a set of initial conditions, an iterative step and a termination condition.

A well known example of iteration in mathematics is Newton-Raphson iteration. Iteration in programs is expressed using a loop, e.g. in C:

	new_x = n/2;
	  x = new_x;
	  new_x = 0.5 * (x + n/x);
	} while (abs(new_x-x) > epsilon);

Iteration can be expressed in functional languages using recursion:

	solve x n = if abs(new_x-x) > epsilon
		    then solve new_x n
		    else new_x
		    where new_x = 0.5 * (x + n/x)
        solve n/2 n


1.   (programming)   volatile variable.

2.   (storage)   See non-volatile storage.

A few more clicks on random brought me to this, proof that those behind FOLDOC also have a great sense of humor:


Large, grey, four-legged mammal.


Update August 3 2016 – Merriam Webster have a learner’s dictionary which could be a valuable resource for those learning English.



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