August 28, 2010

Forward Slash

Some words or phrases are completely dispensable. My top nominee for this category is “forward slash,” meaning, of course, slash, that is, the character “/.” The symbol has been around for a long time, but there was no excuse to call it a “forward slash” until the backslash (“\”) was invented some 40 years ago.

The backslash might have remained an obscure, little-known character were it not for its use in DOS and Windows to separate directory names. Traditionally, the slash itself was a bit obscure, being used only for fractions (e.g., 3/5), some abbreviations (e.g., c/o), and in a few other ways (e.g., and/or). The DOS/Windows convention was much like similar conventions for Unix and the World Wide Web, except that a slash, rather than a backslash is used there. Ordinary computer users, recognizing the similarities in, say, “C:\Windows\Documents and Settings\Deimel” and “http://www.deimel.org/poetry,” can easily get confused as to which symbol is used in which context.

What got me to thinking about these two symbols is that my local NPR station, in giving URLs over the air, reads “/” as “forward slash.” I suspect they think that, in some people’s minds, the backslash has become the “usual” slash, and the use of “forward slash” will shake these people up a bit and decrease the likelihood that they will use a backslash within a URL. Or maybe not. All I know is that adding two extra syllables per slash in a long URL is redundant and annoying. One also sees “forward slash” in print, of course, and I have to ask why, analogously to “backslash,” it isn’t written as “forwardslash.”

Do we need “forward slash” as a synonym for “slash”? Surely not. As it is, a slash can be called a solidus, slant, or virgule, in addition to about half a dozen other names. Let’s dump “forward slash” for good.



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