The Evolution of Data: From Assumptions to Ubiquity

Tracing the origins and transformation of the word “data” and its journey to becoming a fundamental aspect of our digital world

In our data-driven society, where information holds immense power, it is intriguing to ponder the origins and significance of the word “data.” Historian Daniel Rosenberg highlights the fact that this all-encompassing term, which now plays a pivotal role in shaping our economy and society, was not even included in influential works like Raymond Williams’s Keywords or the updated version, New Keywords. So, how did this word evolve, and why did it become the cornerstone of our modern era?

The Latin word “data,” derived from the verb “dare” meaning “to give,” offers a starting point for understanding the historical context. Interestingly, the Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, employed “data” to refer to various things that were given, such as gold, silver, and even rights and powers. Furthermore, in the realm of mathematics, Euclid used a Greek term that was later translated into Latin as “data,” referring to the “givens” in geometrical problems. These “givens” encompassed points, lines, angles, polygons, and segments.

Data as Assumptions in Early Modern Theology

During the early modern period, theologians regarded data as assumptions of truths that required no further explanation. These assumptions were considered self-evident and formed the basis for theological concepts. For instance, biblical Revelations were seen as data, highlighting their importance and unquestioned nature. This understanding of data as assumed truths stood in stark contrast to its contemporary usage.

Data’s Transition from Assumptions to Observations

The transformation of data from assumed truths to observed results occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to this shift, data was primarily used in mathematics but gradually found its way into other disciplines, including theology, philosophy, and medicine. The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1778 noted that data was being transplanted into these fields, representing quantities taken for granted without requiring immediate proof of certainty.

The Naturalization of Data in the English Language

Throughout the eighteenth century, the word “data” became naturalized in the English language, losing its italicization by the end of the century. It also underwent a shift in usage, transitioning from a plural noun to a collective singular, similar to how “media” is used today. This linguistic evolution reflected the growing importance and integration of data across various domains.

The Changing Landscape of Data in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

As the twentieth century dawned, data shifted from being “afforded” or “furnished” to being “collected” or “published.” With the advent of the twenty-first century, data was further described as being “entered,” “transmitted,” and “received.” These linguistic changes in how we describe data mirror the evolving technological landscape and our increasing reliance on digital systems.


The word “data” has traversed a remarkable journey, from its humble Latin origins as the plural form of “dare” to its current status as an intangible yet omnipresent force in our digital world. It has transformed from assumptions of truths to observed results, becoming a fundamental aspect of our information environment. The multitude of phrases prefaced by “data” in the Oxford English Dictionary attests to its ubiquity and materiality in our contemporary society. As we navigate the turbulent waters of the digital age, data remains a prized commodity, constantly under threat of breach and exploitation. Understanding the historical context and evolution of data allows us to appreciate its profound impact on our lives and the challenges and opportunities it presents in our data-driven world.






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