From ironware to doxware, ware is well-adapted to changing times
We upgrade the latest software on our smartphones. We fend off malware and spyware on our laptops. We get up early and wait in long queues to grab the latest and hottest hardware. Modern technology comes at us fast, but a lot of our language for it isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. Consider trusty old ware.
Ware’s old and new
Ware reaches all the way to back to the Old English waru, referring to general ‘articles and goods for sale’. The Oxford English Dictionary finds evidence for waru in the Homilies of Aelfric, a tenth-century abbot. A word of Germanic origin, ware likely emerges from a slightly older sense of the word: ‘watchful care’ or ‘protection’, surviving in aware and beware. Etymologically, then, we can think of a ware as a carefully guarded object, hence an item of some value.
On its own, we usually use ware in the plural today, wares, e.g., the vendors sell their wares at the market. But ware’s greatest success over the centuries has been as a combining form. In a few instances, ware modifies words, like warehouse, which has been storing goods since 14th-century English. More commonly, though, ware is the head of compound designating mass nouns, such as ironware, or various objects forged from iron.
An early emporium
Ironware, attested in 1398, joins a few other, long-lost Middle English -ware compounds in the record. Mercery-ware (1377) was sold by a mercer, or a ‘dealer in fine textiles’. Pottage-ware (1398) included the ‘ingredients for soup or stew’, or pottage. Around 1400, we mortals once described ourselves as worm’s ware. And one colorful early example is ape-ware, ‘counterfeit money’, found in the 13th-century Acrene Riwle.
Hardware has proven a durable formation. It enters the record by 1419, originally ‘small items made of metal’ like the tools and fittings we pick up at hardware stores today. Some other 15th-century compounds include ploughware (animals for ploughing), hornware (made of animal horns), and haberdashery-ware (measuring tape, cords, etc.).
Come Early Modern English, -ware increased its productivity. Field-ware (1546) comprised ‘harvested vegetables’ and hookware (1541) ‘tools for reaping’. The mid-1600s yield poultry-ware, grocery-ware, and fat-ware, or ‘cattle fatted for market’. Earthenware, another sturdy compound, emerges by the 1620s for ‘pots, dishes, and other objects made from clay’. Not long after, we see pottery-ware and stoneware, with yet more specific ceramic ware emerging over the centuries, e.g. Japan ware, slipware. And on the naughtier side? Elizabethan English had lady ware, slang for ‘genitalia’.
The rise of –ware
Glassware, kitchenware, and tableware are notable 18th-century constructions we still use today. And rhyming ware (1719) was a humorous term for ‘commercialized poetry’.
But it was during the 19th century, perhaps coinciding with the rise of the middle class, that –ware proliferated in domestic compounds: basket-ware, cabinet-ware, crystalware, house-ware, flatware, paperware, tinware, toilet-ware, and woodware. By 1862, the record shows silverware, tableware fashioned, of course, from silver, though general ‘cutlery’ today.
The 20th-century witnessed the further domestication of -ware: stemware, ovenware, and plasticware all debuted in the first half of the 1900s. Then, American inventor Earl Tupper transformed reusable kitchen storage containment with his Tupperware. Though trademarked by 1954, the term was developed earlier. Other brands have since competed in the –ware space, e.g. GladWare.
The dawn of a new -ware
It was modern computing that truly revolutionized –ware. In the 1940s, scientists recycled hardware to name the physical components of computers. Back then, computers were massive equipment, evoking hardware’s application to machinery and weaponry in the mid-1800s.
Come the 1950-60s, hardware had naturally suggested its counterpart, software, for all the programs and applications that make computers run. There were earlier instances of software including ‘textiles’ and ‘perishable consumer goods’, but the OED attests the computing sense comes by 1958.
On the model of software, –ware has named many types of computer programs, so much so that it’s perhaps becoming its own suffix designating ‘computer software’. From the 1960-80s: firmware (permanently built into a computer), courseware (designed for educational use), adware (displays pop-up ads), and groupware (facilitates collaboration). Appearing in the 1980s, demoware, freeware, shareware, and loveware all describe how a user accesses new software. And on the cutting edge is cloudware, running on remote servers.
So digitalized have our lives become that some people joke humans are liveware, peopleware, or humanware. The tech community has developed its own slang. Warez (1987) is ‘pirated software’ while bloatware takes up a lot of space on a device. Computers have changed how we think about the physical world: wetware (1975) likens the brain to computer networks and mindware (1977) can refer to artificial intelligence or virtual reality.
In recent decades, -ware has especially designated types of computer viruses scams: malware damages the operation of a computer while spyware covertly steal private user information. With the ransomware, leakware, doxware, and extortionware, hackers threaten to release sensitive data unless the ‘hack-ee’ meets monetary demands.
Ware, no doubt, has had a lot of updates since its Old English days, but it’s adapted well to changing times.
Illustrations by John Taylor