Etymology and meaning of "Data"

Explore the rich history of 'data,' from ancient origins to its role in our digital world. Uncover the journey of a term that defines modern life.

Etymology and meaning of "Data"
Signage within context containing data

In the contemporary digital landscape, the term "data" has become a fundamental pillar. Yet, behind its modern usage lies a captivating etymology that harks back to ancient times, offering insights into its original meaning and usage.

Origins in Latin: "Dare" and "Datum"

The word "data" finds its linguistic roots in the Latin word "datum," the past participle of the verb "dare," which translates to "to give." This linguistic connection provides a glimpse into the historical context that gave rise to the term.

In the Latin context, "data" also held significance as a date formula, such as "dabam Romae prid. Kal. Apr.," meaning "I gave this at Rome on the last day of March."

This formula evolved into "data Romae," which meant "given at Rome." It was from this concept that the usage of "data" transitioned to denote a specific time (date) when something occurred.

Over time, this transition evolved further, and "data" came to represent not just the timing of an event but also the information given at a specific time. This transformation underscores how the term has journeyed from denoting a date to signifying "given" information.

From scrolls to screens

This historical perspective aligns with the contemporary usage of data, albeit in a different form. Today, data is not only about information but also about the act of transmitting it.

From electronic messages to digital files, the underlying concept of giving and sharing information remains intertwined with the term.

Data is not the new oil. It’s the new sand. Tim O'Reilly

In essence, the etymology of "data" echoes the ancient practice of handing over knowledge, preserving the core idea of providing information.

As we navigate the intricacies of the modern digital age, understanding the origins of "data" allows us to appreciate its enduring significance—a concept that continues to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

I also wrote an article on metadata, which is basically data on data.

Now we know where the word data comes from, should I use it as singular or plural? I wish there was a simple answer:

The usage of "data" as a singular or plural noun depends on the specific context, style guide preferences, and the formality of the writing. The language is still evolving, and both singular and plural forms are considered acceptable in various contexts.