Where does the phrase "overload" come from?

It's interesting to see the translation of the term in different languages (e.g. list of Wikipedia articles about overloading), some languages translate it directly (in the meaning of "to put too much weight on something"), but some languages don't translate it at all.

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    Ideally the translators should choose the actual established word used in industry for the target language. Just because a Wikipedia translator translated an article title that way, doesn't mean that's the established way it's done in that language. Maybe the Wikipedia translator wasn't well-versed in computer terminology in his own language and was just taking an educated guess.
    – Brandin
    Sep 8, 2015 at 14:49
  • I just used Wikipedia as an example because it's hard to find any other places where function overloading (and not overloading as a general term) is translated to multiple languages. I suppose that most of the articles are made by people who understand the term (they are not only the translation of the English article), and I know that in Hungarian the most common term is the direct translation (in books, university etc.), but there are also some people, who say it's a bad translation, so they use the English phrase.
    – hunyadym
    Sep 9, 2015 at 10:50
  • See also this SE discussion, which talks about "overloading" mathematical operators. mathoverflow.net/questions/7389/… Q - if you couldn't use "overloading" to describe what is meant here, what would you say?
    – Brandin
    Sep 9, 2015 at 12:55
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    @brandin That question originally asked what are the most “overused” words in mathematics, then changed it to “overloaded” because the word overused is overloaded. This is overloaded in the linguistic sense that Jules brings up in a comment to my answer.
    – Davislor
    Jan 22, 2018 at 11:47

1 Answer 1


This doesn’t answer the question definitively, but the earliest use of it I can find is by John McCarthy in 1966. As described by John Peck, recalling several years later one of the discussions about the Algol standard in Warsaw: “What I can remember of that meeting was the insistence of John McCarthy, that any new language should have what he called overloading of operators. This would eventually became the operation declarations of ALGOL 68.” So the term caught on because of John McCarthy. Or at least it was so obscure in 1966 that McCarthy needed to explain it to the other leading language designers in the world and his usage stood out to the other participants as remarkable. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2011 and I can’t find anything online where he talked about why he called it that, if he coined the term himself, or if there’s any story behind it.

As a commenter informed me, Bjarne Stroustrup explicitly says that he took the idea from Algol when he designed C++ in the early ’80s. A Google Ngram search shows that the phrases “operator overloading” and “overloaded operators” were virtually unheard-of before the ’80s. It doesn’t seem to be how mathematicians back then talked about the way the + sign could denote any group operation.

Jules in the comments gives a plausible source for McCarthy’s use of the term: linguists had been referring to the double meanings of words as “semantic overloading” for decades before 1966. McCarthy’s papers show he was familiar with the field and its terminology. (He also once wrote, “The squabbles among linguists remind me of a saying of my mother-in-law, a retired farmer’s wife. ‘When the chickens start cannibalizing one another, the only thing to do is to butcher the lot or sell them to someone else and start over.’”)

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    Unfortunately I can't be sure, because I can't actually find a citation for it that predates 1966, but my suspicion is that he borrowed the term from linguistics, where "semantic overload" is a term referring to situations where a word has multiple distinct meanings. Unfortunately, the earliest published article I can find using the term like this is from 1971, but it seems unlikely back then that linguistics, an established discipline, would have borrowed terminology from computer science, the newcomer to the field.
    – Jules
    Jan 21, 2018 at 23:31
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    ... ah, no, here we have an earlier occurrence of the term in liguistics: Malkiel Y, The Word Family of Old Spanish recudir, Hispanic Review, 1946 -- on p. 124: 'At this juncture the question may be posed, Why was recudir discarded from the Spanish lexicon? Certainly not on account of its "semantic overload," since the formation that replaced it, namely acudir, shows an equally, if not more, complicated system of meanings.' -- it's clear from this sentence that it was being used then with effectively the same meaning as we use it today in CS.
    – Jules
    Jan 22, 2018 at 0:02
  • Stroustrup indeed explicitly refers to Algol operator overloading in the Design and evolution of the C++ language, which confirms that this is the source.
    – Christophe
    Jan 22, 2018 at 8:33
  • @Jules That’s very plausible. McCarthy contributed to the field of computational linguistics, so he was familiar with the jargon of linguists. It’s unfortunately difficult to search for John McCarthy and linguistics, because the name “John McCarthy” is overloaded: a different John McCarthy is a famous linguist. But searching the late computer scientist’s papers for the word “overload” does not turn up any smoking gun.
    – Davislor
    Jan 22, 2018 at 11:23
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    Related: the earliest example of "operator overload" in the ACM digital library is this 1971 paper simulating the workload of a pair of (human) operators running a computing machine.
    – Graham Lee
    Jan 22, 2018 at 13:48

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