The Origin of the Terms Big-Endian and Little-Endian

The terms big-endian and little-endian were introduced by Danny Cohen in 1980 in Internet Engineering Note 137, a memorandum entitled "On Holy Wars and a Plea for Peace", subsequently published in print form in IEEE Computer 14(10).48-57 (1981). He borrowed them from Jonathan Swift, who in Gulliver's Travels (1726) used them to describe the opposing positions of two factions in the nation of Lilliput. The Big-Endians, who broke their boiled eggs at the big end, rebelled against the king, who demanded that his subjects break their eggs at the little end. Here is the relevant passage:

It began upon the following occasion.
It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty's grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.
The people so highly resented this law, that our Histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on that account, wherein one Emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly formented by the monarchs of Blefuscu, and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that Empire.
It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volums have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big­Endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.
During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty­fourth chapter of the Brundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text: for their words are these; That all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end: and which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion, to be left to every man's conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine.

This passage is a satire on the conflict between the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England and the associated conflict between France and England.

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Revised 2004/01/21.