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CAPTCHA – Podictionary Word of the Day


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Now here’s a word you don’t find in many dictionaries.  And yet Google returns 73 million hits on this word.  It’s been in newspapers and magazines thousands of times.

The New Oxford American Dictionary is the only conventional dictionary I came across that has captcha as an entry, yourdictionary.com the only online one.

That’s understandable given the rate at which dictionaries are updated.

I see at wordspy.com the first citation for captcha is October 2002.

If you can’t quite remember what it means, a captcha is that place on a website where you need to type in the letters or numbers that a spamming computer couldn’t read.

Sometimes I can’t read them either.

The reason this is called a captcha is that the people who invented these things also invented the acronym based on the title Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.

That’s not actually true.

They engineered an acronym that would fit the situation, in this case trying to capture spam robots.  They made up the title so the acronym would come out cleverly.

So now lets decode the title.  Most of it is easy except perhaps the Turing test.  As Wordspy explains it:

“In 1950, the mathematician Alan Turing suggested that a computer could earn the label intelligent if it could fool a person into thinking he or she was communicating with another person instead of a machine.”

So website designers want spambots to fail their Turing tests.

Alan Turing was a genius-level mathematician and pioneering computer scientist.  His research was a key factor in decoding German communications during the Second World War.

Unfortunately he died at age 42.

It’s possible that his death was caused by the fact that like many genius-level scientists he was just too eccentric for his own good.

You know the stereotype, an absent minded professor, awkward socially.  That’s him.

He liked to ride his bicycle to work.

But he also liked wearing a gas mask while doing so.

Obviously he didn’t care too much what others thought.

In those days being gay was seen as a security threat and when it came out that he was having homosexual affairs he was tried and convicted and watched like a hawk by the authorities.  Until one day he was found dead.

At first it looked like he had forgotten to wash his hands after a chemistry experiment and some cyanide had accidently gotten on an apple he was eating.  But investigators decided instead that he’d staged that so his mother wouldn’t think he’d killed himself.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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