The origin of the word cookie is English and begins in Scotland. First recorded in 1754, the word appears in Edmund Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland, where he states that: “In the Low-Country the Cakes are called Cookies.” On the face this may seem rather cut and dry lineage; however, this was (and still is) considered to be a small sweet bun, or, for Americans, a small, flat sweet cake typically known as a biscuit (i.e. NOT a cookie).
While small sweet buns or flat sweet cakes are still known as biscuits (especially in more Anglo-inspired areas), what we have come to associate with a “traditional cookie” is actually Dutch in origin. Coming from the Middle Dutch koke, which means ‘cake’, the diminutive form to refer to a ‘little cake’ is koekje. Considering that the Dutch colony of New Netherland was established at roughly the same time as the British colony in Virginia and less than 2 decades before the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts the word had large exposure to American English for almost 2 centuries before it was written of in a 19th century satirical periodical called Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others, which mentions that: “Those notable cakes, high new-year cookies.” (1808).
A century later, in the 1920’s the word began to expand beyond the little cakes themselves. For example, the March 6, 1920 edition of Collier’s Magazine uses cookie as slang to mean an attractive woman, noting that: “That girl friend of yours is a cookie—hey, what?” Within a few years, the term was also used to denote a positive personal quality (like smart or tough), such as when, on October 7, 1928, the Chicago Tribune noted that: “What a swell bunch of cookies you turned out to be.”
As for how the term went from something positive and edible to something irritating and tech, the first known usage can be found in the January 1979 (7th edition) of the UNIX Programmer’s Manual, where, discussing the fseek routine in the C standard library, it states that: “ftell returns the current value of the offset relative to the beginning of the file associated with the named stream. It is measured in bytes on UNIX; on some other systems it is a magic cookie, and the only foolproof way to obtain an offset for fseek.”
The estimated 34 cookies that are placed on your device when you first visit a website are a pain to you, but they are a boon of information for websites, providing data on site responsiveness, visitor count, basic demographic information, and, in some cases, tracking user movement or clicks. Perhaps mirroring the problems with cookies that we’re encountering today, an October 1996 publication of Scientific American mentions: “If cookies are handy for Web shoppers, site developers, advertisers and trackers, they are irritating and intrusive to many users who do not want to leave behind a digital fingerprint.”
So, how much bad are we willing to tolerate for the good? That’s one tough cookie to crack.