Database: what’s a base?

Friday 2 September 2005

I saw the word database today with a hyphen in it (“data-base”), and it got me thinking: who coined the term “database”, and where the heck did that suffix -base come from? These days we see it all over. It’s used to imply database-like behavior, because it was lifted from database. For example: knowledgebase, infobase, videobase, metabase, sportbase, imagebase, and so on.

But whoever coined “database”, why did they choose -base as a root? What did it mean then?

Update: a helpful reader (thanks, Ken!) sent along the Oxford English Dictionary entry for database:

1. A structured collection of data held in computer storage; esp. one that incorporates software to make it accessible in a variety of ways; transf., any large collection of information.

1962 Technical Memo. (System Development Corp., Calif.) TM-WD-16/007/00. i. 5 A ‘data base’ is a collection of entries containing item information that can vary in its storage media and in the characteristics of its entries and items. 1967 E. R. LANNON in Cox & Grose Organiz. Bibliogr. Rec. by Computer IV. 83 The Search area provides a means of querying the data base. 1971 New Scientist 4 Mar. 498/1 A database is a generalised collection of data not linked to one set of functional questions. 1972 Computer Jrnl. XV. 290/1 Engineering information files set up on disc by Hawker Siddeley Aviation Ltd...form the data base for a fully integrated production control system. 1972 Science 3 Nov. 472/1 The data base from which the volumes are compiled is maintained on magnetic tape and is updated weekly. 1973 Nature 13 Apr. 485/1, I gave a list of the fifty most cited authors for 1967, using the 1967 SCI as the data base. 1974 Florida FL Reporter XIII. 88/2 A number of sociolinguists..gradually moved closer to the creolist position as their data-base expanded. 1981 IBM Jrnl. Res. & Devel. XXV. 505 Around 1964 a new term appeared in the computer literature to denote a new concept. The term was ‘data base’, and it was coined by workers in military information systems to denote collections of data shared by end-users of time-sharing computer systems. The commercial data processing world..appropriated ‘data base’ to denote the data collection which results from consolidating the data requirements of individual applications. 1984 SMITH & BAILEY Mod. Eng. Legal Syst. i. 10 It would..cause chaos, even in an age of computerised legal data bases, if every decision on whether a defendant had behaved ‘unreasonably’..could potentially be cited. 1985 Sunday Times 10 Mar. 80/3 CIR went through its data-base looking for companies interested in investing in new ideas in electronics. 1985 Ashmolean IX. 1/1 A museum and its records are one vast database.


All your base are belong to us.
The etymology is "base" as in "foundation". A "database" is a foundation of organised and accessible data on which you build the upper layers of information and then knowledge (with wisdom as a pinnacle, perhaps?).
Pretty easy question to answer. the "base" in database refers to the storage of data. Similar to how an airforce base has fighter jets.

When you make cheesecake, are you adding cheese? What's the base? Answer: creamcheese.
The German word is Datenbank, which sounds suggestive.

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