It’s a whole different language

Andrew Rowland | 7 June 2021 | 0 comments

Updated 5 Oct 2022 with section about security acronyms and other improvements.

‘You computer people talk a different language’ my wife frequently tells me, usually after I have just told her something I thought obvious and she couldn’t understand a word of. ‘The trouble is, the things you say don’t mean what they mean to ordinary people,’ a customer complained. ‘Why don’t you write a glossary for normal people?’

So here we are.

This is just a list of terms I have noticed cause confusion or which are useful to know when describing a problem, not a full IT dictionary by any means. There are plenty of such resources online, but this one is supposed to be a useful minimum for non-technical people.


An electronic computer is a general purpose device that is programmable.
A personal computer (PC) designed to sit on a desk. Used to always mean a low flat case with separate monitor (screen), keyboard and mouse, but nowadays the case is more likely be a tall ‘tower’ that can sit on or under a desk.
A portable PC with in-built screen, keyboard and trackpad.
A small, lightweight laptop.
A computer built into a screen, without keyboard or mouse. Instead, you use the touchscreen to drive it, and an on-screen keyboard for typing.
Either a tablet with a clip-on keyboard that turns it into a kind of laptop, or a laptop with a touchscreen and reversible keyboard that can fold right back to turn it into a tablet – or prop it up in ‘tent’ mode.
Also processor. The engine or ‘brains’ of the computer, this chip carries out all the processing tasks of the machine, so its speed directly affects the speed you get things done. Speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). New CPUs used to get faster and faster each year, but faster processors also generate more heat, and eventually manufacturers hit the problem that it became impossible to dissipate the heat fast enough to stop them overheating. So they started putting multiple CPUs on one chip – each one called a core – so you could speed things up by performing multiple tasks in parallel. Today, dual, 4, 6, 8 and even 16 core CPUs can be obtained for domestic computers.
Hard disc, SSD
Also disc drive or HDD. Provides permanent storage for files. Whenever you save something, it is stored as a file on the disc, and File Explorer shows you the contents of the disc (in Windows; in Macs: Finder). Programs and the OS itself also have to be stored on the disc. Traditional discs (‘mechanical discs’) have spinning platters coated in magnetic material like cassette tapes, and data are recorded magnetically. Solid State Discs (SSDs) have chips similar to memory sticks but faster, and are replacing HDDs because of their speed (and are not really disc shaped at all). Capacity is expressed in gigabytes or terabytes. Not to be confused with memory!
Also called RAM. All programs and data have to be loaded into memory before they can be used. The contents of RAM are lost when you switch off, though, which is why you need permanent storage as well – aside from the fact terabytes of RAM would be prohibitively expensive. Measured in gigabytes.
Memory stick
Also USB Stick, Thumb drive, Flash drive, pen drive, memory key. A form of permanent storage you plug into a USB socket. Small enough to carry around, smaller and slower than an external hard drive, pretty cheap.
USB Drive
An external hard drive that you plug into a USB socket. Unlike a memory stick, it contains a full-size hard disc or SSD. Measured in gigabytes.


Sign in
Also log in, authenticate. Enter your username and password to allow you to access a computer or service. Your username is often your email address, which of course is unique to you and easy to remember, but don't panic if a website asks for an old email address: you can still log in with it, though you should change it when you have done so. Opposite: Sign out, log out.
Another word for username and password.
Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)
Also Two-Step Verification, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). Makes logging into websites safer by demanding both a password and a second form of verification. This is usually in the form of a code that is sent to your mobile in a text or emailed to you, and which you then type into the website in order to continue. This makes it far safer than just relying on a password, which could have been guessed or hacked. A better form of 2FA uses an authenticator app which generates the code for you and changes it every 30 seconds, so there isn’t even a text or email that could be intercepted.
One time password (OTP)
Also one time code. A code sent as part of 2FA (see above) or a code from an authenticator app.
Catch-all term for various programs whose intent is malicious. Includes viruses, trojans, ransomware, rootkits, adware, keyloggers and more. They range from the relatively benign, invading your privacy and infiltrating adverts into your search results, to ones that steal your passwords or destroy files. A trojan is an example of malware that hides in the installer of another program, which is often free and apparently useful or a game, designed to tempt you to install it. Always Google unknown programs before downloading them.
A form of malware that can spread itself (unlike a trojan, which tricks you into installing it), though the word is often used instead of malware. Antivirus programs usually check for more than just viruses, but often ignore the less harmful stuff. Use antimalware from time to time to keep your computer clean.
Potentially unwanted program. Antivirus and antimalware programs use this term for adware, trojans and software that acts in an unwelcome way, where the publishers induced you to install it by disguising its purpose or presence. Coined for legal reasons (as they are not strictly speaking viruses).


A collection of devices – computers, printers, televisions, tablets, phones and ‘smart’ appliances – connected together so they can communicate with each other. For example, so you can print without a direct wire between the device and printer. You have a network in your house co-ordinated by the router.
A.k.a. Hub. The box your Internet Service Provider (usually the phone company) gives you to plug into the phone socket and provide the Internet to your household. That little box is not only a router, literally routing communications between devices so that, for example, print jobs go the printer and not something else, but also give out the addresses that make that possible, acts as a modem to interface with the phone line and is a Wireless Access Point (WAP) for the Wi-Fi, so it’s a busy little bee. In some circumstances you may have a separate modem and additional WAPs or repeaters around the house.
The Internet
A network of networks. Think of it as the ‘pipes’ that bring external services like email, the Web, streaming TV etc. into your home and connect to your network. In the jargon, it is a wide area network (WAN).
A type of network: today virtually the only type you will meet. An Ethernet cable is a network cable.
How fast web pages and files download or upload over the network. Often called ‘speed’. Pedants like me would say that electricity always travels at the speed of light, neither faster nor slower, but if you think of it as the thickness of the ‘pipe’, obviously a file will download quicker through a thicker pipe.
An Internet connection with decent bandwidth. The UK’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Broadband means that if you can’t get a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s, you can request an upgraded connection. If it will cost more than £3,400 to connect your home, and you still want a connection, you will have to pay the excess, but it can be shared between any neighbours who would benefit.
A wireless way of connecting devices to the router. Does the same job as an Ethernet cable but without the wire. Purely internal, i.e. it connects devices to your network. All those signs in cafés offering free Wi-Fi? Pointless unless their router is connected to the Internet. Let me say it again: Wi-Fi is not another word for the Internet! It’s just one way of connecting to a local network (LAN).
Two meanings. 1 – a program that serves data to other computers, e.g. a web server ‘serves up’ web pages, an email server serves emails, a streaming server sends music or video to other devices over a network (including potentially the Internet). 2 – a computer specially designed to run server programs. Often made to fit in an equipment rack rather than a desktop case.
A device (or rather, a program) that accesses the services of a server. E.g. if you use an email program, it is a client.

The Internet and Web

Web Site
A set of pages published online by one organisation. Can be anything from a single page to thousands. For example, all the pages you find at is one web site. The pages, both on the same web site and others, can be linked together so that, for example, a page about computer terminology can contain links to pages with more detailed information on the various topics.
World Wide Web
(the Web). One of the types of content accessed through the Internet. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, it took the idea of hyperlinks (or just ‘links’) and combined it with the Internet to create a web of information covering the whole planet. Any web page can contain links to others. Great for researchers who want to refer to another academic article: one click and you are reading it! A source of temptation for everyone else. The term ‘browsing’ was coined for that thing where you start looking something up quickly on the Web, and find yourself hours later reading half a dozen completely unrelated topics.
A program that allows you to read web pages, e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, Opera.
Social Media
Web sites that let end users contribute material, where the principal purpose is finding, maintaining or communicating with your social contacts. E.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn.
Just a marketing term for any service you reach online, especially if it replaces something you might have done locally in the past. Cloud storage means keeping a copy of files on a company’s hard drives (encrypted, of course) on the Internet, e.g. Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox.
You upload when you send a file, email etc. to a server on the Internet, and download when you read one onto your own computer. Think of the Cloud and you won’t go wrong!

Using the Computer

A bunch of numbers saved onto a disc and given a filename. What those numbers represent will depend on what program saved them, and programs themselves are files too.
If you open a program, you load and run it; if you open a file in a program, you load it for viewing or editing. The counterpart of saving. Opposites: close, exit, quit.
Operating System
(OS). The program that runs when you first switch a computer on. It sits between the hardware and applications and provides the environment in which those programs can run and interact with the user and hardware like the keyboard, mouse, monitor and printers. Without an OS, the PC is just a bunch of useless electronics. Examples: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux.
A small picture on-screen that represents an object such as a file. Often also used to mean a button with a picture.
A rectangle on-screen you click to perform an action.
The hash key
Looks like a musical sharp sign: #. Its position on different keyboards varies a lot, so find yours and note for the future!
The Windows key
The key second left from the space bar. Usually with a logo similar to whatever the Windows icon was in the era the keyboard was made, incorporating a square divided into four. Tap it to open the Start menu, or hold it down while typing E to open File Explorer, or I to open Settings (to mention just two examples). Apple computers have a different key in this position.
Shift key
There are two shift keys, at the left and right of the main part of your keyboard, one row above the space bar’s. Usually with an up arrow on them (that looks different from the arrows on the four cursor keys). Hold either one down when typing a letter to get the capital letter – unless Caps Lock is on, in which case you get the lower case letter – or to get the upper character on keys with two symbols printed on them, such as the number keys above the letters. Note that Caps Lock only affects letters, not the other symbols.
‘App’. A program that performs a useful task (or helps you to), for example an office program, browser or editor. Any program that is not a utility or part of the OS is an app. At a general level, all apps manipulate data, whether the data are a document, image, sound file, database or something else. At the end of the day, running apps is what you bought the computer for. If you didn’t have a computer, you would do these tasks some other way, e.g. with pen and paper.
A program to help with some computer-related task (maintenance or housekeeping). E.g. a backup program to secure your data, antivirus or a duplicate file finder. If you don’t have a computer, you are in the blissful position of never needing a utility.
Met a term I haven’t dealt with? Send me a message using the form below.

© Andrew Rowland 2021

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