The Jargon Menagerie: Zebras, Purple Squirrels, Unicorns, and Bugs

ZebraImage courtesy of Thinkstock


Has anyone seen a zebra, a purple squirrel, a unicorn, or a bug lately? Depending upon the meaning and where you work, you may have.

What got me going on this was an article The Washington Post did entitled "In looking for 'zebra,' doctors are stumped by toddler's painful legs, rash and bleeding gums." It is worth reading but the term “zebra” caught my eye. It turns out that this is medical slang for a diagnosis that is surprising, and often exotic.

For the term "unicorn," we need to turn to the financial sector. In this case, unicorn refers to a start-up company that is valued at more than $1 billion. These are typically companies being discussed by venture capitalists.

We get a little closer to our arena of embedded design with purple squirrels. A "purple squirrel" is what people in human resources and the employment industry refer to as the perfect fit for a job—so named because the job in question typically has a list of minimum qualifications that only a purple squirrel could meet. One example of these requirements is having five years' experience in a technology that has only been out for two years. Some purple squirrel job advertisements end up filled by H-1B visa hires that somehow meet the criteria.

Of course, we have our own jargon that gets filtered depending upon the direction that our work takes us in. There is the plethora of abbreviated organizations, like JEDEC and IEEE, as well as terms designed to confuse the uninitiated and reduce the size of technical articles. There is also the use of the term "bug" to refer to a problem that needs to be solved. Supposedly this term was coined by Grace Murray Hopper after a moth became caught in the relay of the Havard Mark II computer. So now we use term debugger to get rid of the infestation of real and virtual bugs.

I suspect there are quite a few terms like these that span the wide range of jobs and organizations we participate in. We should probably collect them together in a virtual zoo so we can keep track of them.

TAGS: Dev Tools
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