Number Crunching

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Fri Dec 17 19:47:42 UTC 2004

On Fri, 17 Dec 2004 12:50:44 EST, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at AOL.COM> wrote:

>"Number crunching" meaning heavy-duty numerical computations is a strained
>metaphor.  It might have arisen from "numeric data processing" with the
>image of "crunching" for "processing".  I suspect that it is one of those
>"off the wall", "straight out of left field" metaphors that become popular
>because they are so far-fetched---the average user doesn't think of such
>an expression, and then is so pleased with such novel imagery that s/he
>can't resist using it.
>I have no hard evidence but I am fairly sure "number crunching" became a
>popular term, and may have been coined, circa 1972.
[snip history of Cray supercomputer]

Popularized, perhaps, but certainly not coined then.  From the OED3 draft

    number cruncher, n.
    1. A computer or software capable of performing rapid calculations
    with large amounts of data.
    1966 New Scientist 29 Sept. 729/1 The Flowers report recommended
    the setting up of some 'regional centres' each with a large
    'number-cruncher' to take the bulk-computing load off more local
    machines. [...]
    2. Freq. derogatory. A statistician, accountant, or other person
    whose job involves dealing with large amounts of numerical data.
    1971 A. SAMPSON New Anat. Brit. V. xxvi. 497 Kenneth Keith, a
    brusque number-cruncher who had come into banking from accountancy.

    number crunching, n.
    The action of processing large amounts of numerical data.
    1968 Amer. Math. Monthly 75 457 We academic types must surely
    defend our premise that critical analysis and proofs are
    worthwhile in this age of wholesale number-crunching.
    1971 Sci. Amer. Aug. 100 (advt.) Here's a calculator that speaks
    your language. You can customize its keyboard, memory size, display,
    programs and peripherals to suit your number-crunching tasks.

    number-crunching, a.
    That processes large amounts of numerical data.
    1972 Communications ACM 15 319/2 About 75 percent of the LASL
    computing load is the 'number crunching' variety.

--Ben Zimmer

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