By Deane Barker

This is a general term for “placeholder.”

Here’s how we got to this definition, from Wikipedia:

In computer user interfaces, a cursor is an indicator used to show the current position for user interaction

Cursor is Latin for ‘runner’. A cursor is a name given to the transparent slide engraved with a hairline used to mark a point on a slide rule. The term was then transferred to computers through analogy.

So, a “cursor” is that clear plastic piece that slides along the length of a slide rule. I don’t know how a slide rule works, but I understand that was used as a placeholder.

Why I Looked It Up

I was working on some code that would export records from a database. Because of the particular architecture, I couldn’t export them all at once, and had to keep making requests for 200 at a time. This meant my code had to remember “where” I was at in the dataset, so I didn’t re-request records that I already had.

I remember thinking, “This is what they call a cursor in relational databases…”

Then I got to wondering where that name came from. I actually made the mental leap myself that “cursor” must mean placeholder of some kind, because that’s what the mouse pointer is on a computer screen – it’s a placeholder for whatever you’re doing.

So, I looked it up.


Added on

In Hidden Potential, there’s a discussion of the origin of the word:

[…] cursor derives from the Latin currere, “to run,” and sometimes translates to “running messenger”, or “errand boy.” It was originaly the name for a part on the slide rule – the piece that moves back and forth – and some computer pioneers borrowed it.

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