Programming Languages Names Etymology

Do you ever wonder where the name of your favorite programming language comes from? I do. The first to struck me was Python.

Why Python?

At first we might associate it with the large, constricting snake, star of many B-movies about people in beige shorts being swallowed whole by not-so-mythological beasts. The official logo strongly indicates that this is the intended meaning behind the name. The actual origin has a more British flair, as it comes from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus BBC show. Quoting Guido van Rossum, the language’s author, in Foreword to Programming Python:

Over six years ago, in December 1989, I was looking for a “hobby” programming project that would keep me occupied during the week around Christmas. My office (a government-run research lab in Amsterdam) would be closed, but I had a home computer, and not much else on my hands. I decided to write an interpreter for the new scripting language I had been thinking about lately: a descendant of ABC that would appeal to Unix/C hackers. I chose Python as a working title for the project, being in a slightly irreverent mood (and a big fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Jolly good! As a testament to this ancestry, the literature concerning the Python language often references Monty Python skits (see the official tutorial for an example), but seldom mentions reptiles.

It’s not a snake … or is it?

But wait, where did the snake logo came from then? There must be some connection, otherwise it would not ornate the official homepage of the language. Guido van Rossum provides the answer in an interview with Computer World:

Are you a Monty Python fan (given the name and other elements of the language derive from Monty Python’s Flying Circus)?

Yes, this is where I took the language’s name. The association with the snake of the same name was forced upon me by publishers who didn’t want to license Monty-Python artwork for their book covers. I’m also into the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though I’m not into much other staples of geek culture (e.g. no sci-fi or fantasy, no role playing games, and definitely no computer gaming).

So, Monty Python artwork licensing difficulties on Python books introduced the association with snakes. I guess the serpentine imagery stuck, and ended up replacing the legacy logo.

I wonder which publishers van Rossum refers to though. Perhaps the publisher of the aforementioned Programming Python, who coincidentally happens to favor putting animals on their book covers. In that case, the elegant compromise would have been to choose a dead parrot.