A backwards reaction to “backslash”

There’s a podcast I listen to where the host has read out their URL as “backslash,” instead of “slash.” I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve heard someone make the same mistake, even in a widely broadcast ad.

As in, “Tell us what you think for a chance to win, at ‘example dot com backslash survey!’”

In the case of this podcast, the natural thing to do would be “send a polite email,” or perhaps even more appropriate, “nothing.”

I instead opted for trying to figure out if there was a shared story behind this misnomer.

My simple guess was: Windows uses backslashes for file paths, and shows this to people in the UI. Most of them would have no reason to distinguish between a file path that looks a lot like a URL, and the / forward slashes in URLs.

I still think this is a pretty reasonable theory, particularly since at certain points, Windows also started accepting forward slashes for paths in some cases, but not others.

I wasn’t expecting a definitive answer around this, but so far I have been surprised to find even less suggestions that it’s to do with Windows than I was expecting. So, perhaps not.

When working with the file system, it’s common for programming languages to offer some kind of abstraction or constant variable that stands in as a “directory separator,” so it will correctly resolve as \ on Windows, and / on UNIX-like systems (macOS, Linux, and my by extension everywhere else).

Perhaps that’s only where my own understanding of the situation comes from. Even if you aren’t a developer, you do see these file paths in the operating system, of course, and they do look an awful lot like URLs if you aren’t particularly technical.

On Wikipedia, there seems to be an update every six or twelve months to say that the history of the backslash mark before 1960 still isn’t known. Shady Characters (the blog and book), seemed like a natural place to look, too, but it only mentions backslashes in the context of ideas about marks for sarcasm.

There’s significantly more you can read about the precursor (or historical equivalents, depending on your interpretation) to the slash mark, which makes this relatively recent, ~30 year gap so interesting.

In any case, I felt I could set aside my search, at least as it pertains to this podcast, once I came across this: one possible definition of backslash on Wiktionary is:

Used erroneously in reference to, or in reading out, the ordinary slash

Until next time,