Posted by: Jack Henry | October 11, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Daemons, Demons, and Pandemonium


It’s the month of ghouls, goblins, and other frightening creatures—what better time for an excerpt from Words of a Feather: A Humorous Puzzlement of Etymological Pairs, by Murray Suid? Our words for today are mailer-daemon and pandemonium.

When an email that you sent comes back to you from “Mailer-Daemon,” this isn’t the work of the devil—at least not a living, breathing devil. It’s merely a message from a robotic daemon software program alerting you to the fact that there was a problem with the email address.

There are many daemon programs, and if you’re not aware of them, that’s because they are designed to lurk silently—and invisibly—in the background, ready to handle a task if the need should arrive.

If you wonder why such a helpful type of program got such a demonic-sounding name, it is because in the 1960s the innovative computer geniuses at MIT not only were at the cutting edge of information technology, they also knew classical Greek mythology.

Specifically, they understood that in the Greek myths, daemons (pronounced just like demons) were helpful semi-divine beings that stood between the gods and human beings. They were the pagan equivalents of guardian angels. As such, they were the perfect model for digital servants that stood between the geeks and the end users.

But if demons are so “nice,” how did they get demonized? The translators of some versions of the New Testament borrowed the word demon as the name for evil spirits allied with the Devil. It was that sense of the word that John Milton had in mind when, for his poem Paradise Lost, he coined Pandemonium as the name of Satan’s capital city, creating the word from the Greek pan-, “all,” and daimon, “demon,” figuratively, “a home just for demons.” Knowing how evil spirits act when they get together, we can easily imagine how the word pandemonium came to mean chaos and mayhem.

And a big thank you to Dan G. for the following:

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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