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The Murky Origins of Zork's Name 70

mjn writes "Computational media researcher Nick Montfort traces the murky origins of Zork's name. It's well known that the word was used in MIT hacker jargon around that time, but how did it get there? Candidates are the term 'zorch' from late 1950s DIY electronics slang, the use of the term as a placeholder in some early 1970s textbooks, the typo a QWERTY user would get if he typed 'work' on an AZERTY keyboard, and several uses in obscure sci-fi. No solid answers so far, though, as there are problems with many of the possible explanations that would have made MIT hackers unlikely to have run across them at the right time."
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The Murky Origins of Zork's Name

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  • Trivia (Score:2, Interesting)


    It's also at least arguable that "zork" sounds less destructive than "zorch,"

    "Zorch" sounds exactly like "Zork" when you pronounce the "-ch" as a "k" like the word chemistry. Could've been wordplay that became viral, like when people use "guise" instead of "guys".

    The general definition of "zorch" is to destroy or render unusuable, esp with electrical current of improper or fatal voltage or current.

    Calvin and Hobbes' Spaceman Spiff carries a futuristic sidearm, which was eventually named Death

    • by Jhon ( 241832 )

      There is a small mailbox here
      >open mailbox

      Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet.
      >read leaflet

      You don't have the leaflet!
      >take leaflet

      leaflet taken.
      >read leaflet

      "Welcome to ZORK!..."

      What fun it was for the impressionable lad of 12 or 13 I was...

      • Re:Trivia (Score:5, Funny)

        by FreshKarma ( 1333201 ) <magebp@@@gmail...com> on Sunday January 10, 2010 @12:04AM (#30712416)
        You have been eaten by a grueling day at work.
        • Re:Trivia (Score:5, Funny)

          by husker_man ( 473297 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @01:18AM (#30712700)

          You have been eaten by a grueling day at work.

          These jokes are getting a little twisty on me. All alike.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            You see a seedy looking heckler carrying a large bag.

          • by bcat24 ( 914105 )

            Is is there there an an echo echo in in here here??

          • by mqduck ( 232646 )

            I liked Zork, but I hate the "twisty little passages". It practically ruins the game. It, as anyone who managed to finish the game knows, creates "difficulty" by having some places warp you to other places without any indication that it's doing so. In fact, it never gives you any indication of where you are ("all alike"). When you create a "puzzle" that can't be solved using logic or intuition, that's NOT FUN. It's just irritating.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by jwildstr ( 1354869 )
              I remember solving that (or rather, my mother solving it). It required a very large piece of paper and a large number of (preferably useless) items. You'd drop one in each new room you came to; that gave a unique identifier for the room, so you could make a map.
            • Re:Trivia (Score:4, Informative)

              by russotto ( 537200 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @11:05AM (#30714526) Journal

              I liked Zork, but I hate the "twisty little passages". It practically ruins the game. It, as anyone who managed to finish the game knows, creates "difficulty" by having some places warp you to other places without any indication that it's doing so.

              There's no warping. It's viciously difficult because the place descriptions are identical and the object -dropping strategy is limited by your inventory and by the thief moving things around, but it's deterministic and only movement commands actually move you. The maze can be mapped, it's just quite tedious.

          • I'm sorry, I don't speak elvish.
        • I swear I didn't change my sig to fit into this convo....
    • FWIW, two degrees away from the source:

      A friend's father, who is a computer nerd and retired electrician and flunked out of MIT in the mid 60s swears by the "zorch" theory, and has since I met him. He supports the notion that "zorch" is an onomatopoeia for the sound that a frying electrical component makes as it dies; with a soft "ch". The hard "k" is the fault of MIT sociolinguistics of the era, he explains.

      And actually now that I think of it, if any of this has anything to do with the sociolinguistics o
  • What about Kroz? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Chuq ( 8564 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @12:25AM (#30712510) Homepage Journal

    Crappy ASCII art based shareware game... Kingdom of Kroz... "borrowed" it's name from Zork.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Osty ( 16825 )

      Crappy ASCII art based shareware game... Kingdom of Kroz... "borrowed" it's name from Zork.

      Crappy or not, Kroz ultimately brought us Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, etc. Scott Miller founded Apogee with the release of Kingdom of Kroz, and the rest is history.

    • At least link [3drealms.com] us to a site [kingdomofkroz.com] or two.
    • That doesn't help us go the other way. Also, that was a RAD game for its day. Sort of a realtime roguelike.

  • How about maybe it just sounded good?

  • Nethack (Score:4, Funny)

    by smitty97 ( 995791 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @01:05AM (#30712656)

    The oracle asks for a donation of 1000 zorkmids to ponder your question..

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The Oracle scornfully takes all your money and says:

      "it is rather disconcerting to be confronted with the following theorem from [Baker, Gill, and Solovay, 1975].

      Theorem 7.18 There exist recursive languages and B such that

      (1) P(A) == NP(A), and
      (2) P(B) != NP(B)

      This provides impressive evidence that the techniques that are currently available will not suffice for proving that P != NP or that P == NP." [Garey and Johnson, p. 185.]

  • As a kid in the early '80s, I created my own space marine/spy/superhero character and drew a comic book of one of his adventures: lots of spaceships and weapons and a sinister villain as part of a class project. I named him Zork because I was fascinated by the letter Z (I was a huge Zorro fan growing up) and the combination with the letter K sounded strong. I had big hopes of making him into a toy product line, Saturday morning cartoon, and a series of choose your own adventure books. Oh well...
    • I love stuff like this. I think every creative person, at one time or another in their life, has "created" something that, hours, days, or years later they find to be an existing term, name or trademark.

      I feel for you brother! Teaches you to keep your truly unique creations close to your chest...

  • It is also possible that the People's Computer Company newsletter or Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics used a bit of Brunner's material as filler. The "bit of zork" illustration would have fit their style. Unfortunately, I don't definitely remember such an example.
  • 'Zork'? What is 'zork'?
  • next goes to the planet Zork, he'll ask them. That is, if they can stop reading slashzork, the local, well, you know.

  • Hello Sailor (Score:3, Interesting)

    by amiga3D ( 567632 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @02:56AM (#30713078)
    I swear that game made me buy a commodore 64 just to play it. I saw it on a friends C64 and bought one a week later with a 1541 disk drive and the games Zork and F15 Strike Eagle. I lost more sleep wandering around the rooms in that house. I doubt the name has any real meaning, just more of the same bizarreness of the game.
    • You had it easy! Best we could manage was a tape drive on our C64. You had to forward the tape (an audio tape) to your save point and then enter load" etc before our Dad would slash us in two w'it breadknife, if we were lucky! I was too busy playing Elite and Impossible Mission to get Zork. I got Zork first on my PC (Atari 286) - who could afford an 80086? My one at work cost A$5,600 with a 10Mb Tadon step drive disk and a Hercules graphics card in 1986. My 286 in 1987 was A$3,600 - with a 9pin dot matrix
      • by ubrgeek ( 679399 )
        Yeah, yeah. And when I was a kid, I had to wander through a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, in the snow, with no shoes, uphill both ways. Get off my open field west of a white house.
      • Amusingly, you can also buy a house for $46,000 today.
    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      I remember seeing Zork for the first time on a friend's Apple II. He was the neighborhood Richy Rich who could afford an Apple (us normal kids had to settle for C64's). I never realized it was released for the C64 too (it would have certainly made me less jealous of Richy Rich, if I had known that).
  • Pinky may have played Zork...
  • There was a uk based comic called Warrior that had a recurring character in one of the strips called Zork. I think the character was based on earlier work from another underground comic - possibly us based.
  • "You can't call it Dorkz - anyone got any other ideas..."
  • "Zork" was originally MIT hacker jargon for an unfinished program. The implementors named the completed game Dungeon, but by that time the name Zork had already stuck.
  • To me, this article is more interesting because of the AZERTY keyboard configuration. I didin't know that existed.

    • That's funny. For some reason I always thought AZERTY just meant a crappy typist.

    • by andrewa ( 18630 )

      Oh, believe me they exist. Every time I do any consultancy work in France I have to use those keyboards.... *shudder*

  • by Xin Jing ( 1587107 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @01:01PM (#30715178)

    An hour of searching revealed these clues to the origin of the classic gaming name Zork. Here's a 2001 interview with Dave Lebling, one of the devs from Zork and the early days of Infocom posted on Adventure Gaming Classic http://www.adventureclassicgaming.com/index.php/site/interviews/171/ [adventurec...gaming.com]:

    Q: There had been numerous speculations regarding the origin of the word "Zork." For the record, who among the "Infocom Imps" came up with this name? Where is the exact origin of the word "Zork"?

    A: I'm pretty sure it was Marc Blank who first applied the word to the game. The word itself was current as an exclamation or nonsense word (like "foo" and "bar") around the lab. Programs in the ITS operating system were had to have six-letter or fewer names, and it was pretty common to use a placeholder name when working on something new. I think Marc used "TS ZORK" as the placeholder, and it stuck.
    I think "Frobozz" was similar, of a variant of "foobar." Bruce Daniels was, I think, largely responsible for its ubiquity in the early parts of Zork.

    We briefly changed the name of the game to "Dungeon" (which was my bad idea, I sheepishly admit), then changed it back after TSR (the D&D people) threatened us with a lawsuit over it. MIT's lawyers squashed them like bugs but we decided we liked "Zork" better anyway. The widely distributed Fortran version of Zork was written during the period when the game was called Dungeon, which is why that version is often called Dungeon.

    Also here's a further clue in "The History of Zork", as recounted by Tim Anderson http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/Articles/NZT/zorkhist.html [csd.uwo.ca]:

    "...Marc, Bruce, and I sat down to write a real game. We began by drawing some maps, inventing some problems, and arguing a lot about how to make things work. Bruce still had some thoughts of graduating, thus preferring design to implementation, so Marc and I spent the rest of Dave's vacation in the terminal room implementing the first version of Zork. Zork, by the way, was never really named. "Zork" was a nonsense word floating around; it was usually a verb, as in "zork the fweep," and may have been derived from "zorch." ("Zorch" is another nonsense word implying total destruction.) We tended to name our programs with the word "zork" until they were ready to be installed on the system."

    Anyone got the email address for Marc Blank? Undoubtedly the absolute truth lies with him.

  • An entire chapter of Twisty Little Passages is devoted to Zork. Twisty Little passages [google.com]

"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde