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What's a "Code"?

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Can someone explain to me why academics, journalists, businessfolk, and people who profess to know something about technology use the expression "a code" when they mean a software program? I have never heard a programmer use the word like that. Code is a collective noun, like sand, or water, or "copy" in journalism. You don't say "I'm gonna get me a sand" any more than you say "I'm gonna write me a code".
"Code" is the counterpart to "data". It's the information in the computer that makes it do something; "data" is the stuff it does that something to. It's what programmers produce when they work (the verb is "to code"). If a programmer works for an hour, whatever s/he produced—finished or unfinished—is "code". When you subdivide code, you get code. When you combine bits of code together, what you have is still code. Code is not like gears or camshafts or wheels: when you copy code you have two pieces of code but they're still the same code. If you have the source code for one program, it's code; if you have the source code for two programs it's still just code.
So don't say "a code". And although Jargonfile claims the expression is used in scientific computing, it's best to avoid "codes" also. It will only make you look ignorant to snobs like me. We already lost the battle on "hacker"; we're not going to let any more words go without a fight.

2004-11-21, © Source, Geoffrey Glass


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