The A-Z of Programming Languages: AWK

Alfred V. Aho of AWK fame talks about the history and continuing popularity of his pattern matching language.

How did you determine the order of initials in AWK?

This was not our choice. When our research colleagues saw the three of us in one or another's office, they'd walk by the open door and say 'AWK! AWK!'. So, we called the language AWK because of the good natured ribbing we received from our colleagues. We also thought it was a great name, and we put the AUK bird picture on the AWK book when we published it.

What did you learn from developing AWK that you still apply in your work today?

My research specialties include algorithms and programming languages. Many more people know me for AWK as they've used it personally. Fewer people know me for my theoretical papers even though they may be using the algorithms in them that have been implemented in various tools. One of the nice things about AWK is that it incorporates efficient string pattern matching algorithms that I was working on at the time we developed AWK. These pattern matching algorithms are also found in other UNIX utilities such as EGREP and FGREP, two string-matching tools I had written when I was experimenting with string pattern matching algorithms.

What AWK represents is a beautiful marriage of theory and practice. The best engineering is often built on top of a sound scientific foundation. In AWK we have taken expressive notations and efficient algorithms founded in computer science and engineered them to run well in practice.

I feel you gain wisdom by working with great people. Brian Kernighan is a master of useful programming language design. His basic precept of language design is to keep a language simple, so that a language is easy to understand and easy to use. I think this is great advice for any language designer.

Have you had any surprises in the way that AWK has developed over the years?

One Monday morning I walked into my office to find a person from the Bell Labs micro-electronics product division who had used AWK to create a multi-thousand-line computer-aided design system. I was just stunned. I thought that no one would ever write an AWK program with more than handful of statements. But he had written a powerful CAD development system in AWK because he could do it so quickly and with such facility. My biggest surprise is that AWK has been used in many different applications that none of us had initially envisaged. But perhaps that's the sign of a good tool, as you use a screwdriver for many more things than turning screws.

Do you still work with AWK today?

Since it's so useful for routine data processing I use it daily. For example, I use it whenever I'm writing papers and books. Because it has associative arrays, I have a simple two-line AWK program that translates symbolically named figures and examples into numerically encoded figures and examples; for instance, it translates 'Figure AWK-program' into "Figure 1.1'. This AWK program allows me to rearrange and renumber figures and examples at will in my papers and books. I once saw a paper that had a 1000-line C that had less functionality than these two lines of AWK. The economy of expression you can get from AWK can be very impressive.

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