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Oct 192016

I have just been listening to a Microsoft fanboy on the you tube wittering on about something (not computer related), when he tried to read out a URL. According to him, there are “backslashes” in the URL.

Not in any normal URL. For those who do not know, URLs are web site addresses such as The character that appears after the network protocol (http) – the “/” is formally known as the solidus, and less formally as a slash. The slash that goes the other way is called the backslash (or more formally the reverse solidus).

And who decided that one was a slash (‘/”) and the other a backslash (‘\’)? Although it has been used since the Medieval era, it was probably first called as solidus in the 19th century because of it being used to signify the British shilling. Currently it is the Unicode Consortium who call it a solidus in the international standard for character encoding. If you disagree with them, by all means either convince them they’re wrong or set up a new international standard and get it more widely adopted than Unicode.

Until then, I’ll carry on calling someone who says a backslash looks like – ‘/’, wrong.

Does it matter? In the big scheme of things probably not, but it does make reading out instructions more difficult when either slashes or backslashes appear. After all computers rarely say “Ah! I see what you meant! You meant which is different (and makes sense) to http:\\\“. And as anyone who has ever encountered autocorrect “mistakes” will attest, letting computers decide what you meant is not always the best idea.

And how did the mistake originally occur? To some extent Microsoft is to blame, although I doubt Microsoft ever called the slashes the wrong name.

When Microsoft wrote their first operating system (DOS), they chose to make it semi-compatible with an earlier operating system (CP/M) which used the slash to indicate the use of an option to a command-line command which in turn was inherited from certain early DEC operating systems.

When they came to implementing directories (yes that long ago), they broke with the tradition of stealing ideas from DEC (or we would have ended up with paths like C:[WINDOWS.SYSTEM]FOO.SYS) and instead chose the Unix path separator. But the slash conflicted with option processing on the command-line, so they used the backslash instead – C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\FOO.SYS.

Of course people started calling the backslash, a slash, and I’m sure there are many out there who will continue despite being told that they are wrong. Of course when I say they’re wrong, I have the backing of an international group of grapheme experts behind me.


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