Foolosophy – Etymology of Foo

Foo is a silly word that appears in most of my online monikers and links. I do this to establish a consistency across my online presences, for anonymity (a quality needed by my personality type as well as for privacy protection), but mostly because it sounds funny and signifies my light-hearted (aka silly) nature. Foo in its recent incarnation is an über-geek term from computer software engineering; it is a placeholder or sample name that can stand for absolutely anything.

The etymology of foo is formally discussed in an Internet Engineering Task Force Request for Comment, IETF RFC 3092, whose opening paragraph is:

    ‘Approximately 212 RFCs, or about 7% of RFCs issued so far, starting with [RFC269], contain the terms `foo’, `bar’, or `foobar’ used as a metasyntactic variable without any proper explanation or definition. This may seem trivial, but a number of newcomers, especially if English is not their native language, have had problems in understanding the origin of those terms. This document rectifies that deficiency.’

There are many such variables that have acquired ‘fame’, including fred, and my personal favorite, glorf. But among these, foo is the most universal.

As we learn in RFC 3092, foo first appears in the 1930s. In the 1938 Disney Daffy Duck movie, Daffy holds a sign: SILENCE IS FOO. Foo is well represented in those intellectual comic strips by Bill Holman (Smokey Stover) and Walt Kelly (Pogo ‘we have met the enemy and he is us’), memorable from my early childhood. Kelly may have meant foo as a term of disgust, an abbreviated fooey. Holman frequently drew FOO on car license plates, named a fire engine the foomobile, and used foo in memorable nonsense phrases: he who foos last foos best; where there’s foo there’s fire. Holman claimed to have found the inspiration in an inscription on the bottom of a Chinese figurine, perhaps the Chinese fu that means happiness/prosperity.

The popularity of such comics caused a sort of ‘foo fever’ to sweep the land, firmly embedding foo in American popular culture during this period. During the WWII, radar operators concerned themselves with foo-fighters, where foo signified an unidentified plane or object.

The TMRC (Tech Model Railroad Club, precursor to the MIT AI Club) may have been influential in cementing the modern technical uses of foo in the late 1950s, grounded in a Walt Kelley sense of the word. Digital clock displays (aka foo counters) kept track of the time a train ran continuously. Foo switches were strategically located around the train room whereby an operator could stop a train to avoid some impending nastiness. Once stopped, the foo counter (clock) would show FOO rather than the elapsed running time.

A further preview of foo’s metasyntactic future was evident by the door of the train room, where two switches labeled foo and bar were located. Their function at any given time was at the whim of the members.

Perhaps as recognition of the millennia-old om as the ur-metasyntactic variable, the club desecrated a Buddhist mantra, replacing archetype om with foo. Thus did foo manipadme hum become their invocation of whatever deity’s help might be offered to keep the foo counters turning (i.e. trains running). Such was an early instance of ‘ha-ha-only-serious’ humor that still emanates today from geeky circles, a humorous saying that disguises a disquieting amount of truth behind some up-front silliness.

It seems likely that such a zen sense is also inherent in my use of foo.

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