One can be well into programming before it occurs to a programmer to ask: "What does PHP stand for, anyway?" The acronym is used all over the place on the web, whether in reference to the programming language or as a comparison ("Use Rails instead of PHP!"). But how did that little three-letter acronym gain such power?
What DID PHP Stand For?
In the early days of the web, PHP meant "Personal Home Page", and designated the virtual real estate everyone was claiming. Unlike business or professional web pages, a Personal Home Page was the place for family and pet pictures and the individual keepsakes a person could keep on the web.
However, as the web went beyond simple Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), more and more people demanded advanced functionality. A new kind of programming language was born, and with it, a new acronym.
What does PHP Stand For Now?
The answer is simple: PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor.
"But wait," you say, "that can't be the answer - how can the P in PHP stand for PHP?"
It is strange, but it's a simple nod to the sense of humor of programmers that the acronym used for this language is a "recursive" acronym. This is a grammatical joke, in that it is an acronym that refers to itself when the acronym is expanded. It's kind of like a Laurel and Hardy routine:
"So, what does PHP stand for, Ollie?"
"Why, Stan, it stands for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor, of course."
"Oh ok. Well then, what's hypertext?"
"Oh, Stan, every knows that. Hypertext is the ability to link textual information to other information. It's the main force behind the World Wide Web, after all, letting people follow chains of information to new information easily."
"I see. Well, Ollie, if you're so smart, what's a preprocessor?"
"Stan, that's simple. A preprocessor is a function on the web server that reads and acts on (or parses) the hypertext before the web page gets served back to the user's web browser."
"Before? Ollie, why would anyone want to do that?"
"Lots of reasons, Stan, lots. Mainly it's to create dynamic web content, of course. Like personalizing web pages with your name or providing relevant content based on age, location, sex, or some other demographic that you give it. It can also detect things like what kind of computer you're using, so that you download the right version of a program to work on your Mac, as opposed to my PC."
"Wow, I must say, that's impressive, Ollie. Anything else?"
"Yes, Stan, PHP is useful for many things. Generating XML documents, Flash, PDF documents…and if you can't find a module that does what you want in the PEAR, you can always program your own. PHP is a very flexible and useful language, and works on almost all -"
"Wait a minute, Ollie! What is this PEAR thing you're talking about?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Stan, I didn't explain that. The PEAR is the PHP Extension and Application Repository which is a whole bunch of reusable code snippets that can do all sorts of things. It is the place to look for new PHP code, so that you don't end up reinventing the wheel."
"I see, I see. The PHP Extension and Application Repository. That makes sense, except for one thing, Ollie."
"What's that, Stan?"
"What does PHP stand for, again?"
The Future of PHP
While PHP is used in all sorts of ways, the fact is that the language is starting to become obsolete in the web 2.0 world. Other languages, such as AJAX and Ruby on Rails are gaining momentum as the Internet changes. Still, not only can learning a language like PHP or Java serve as a marketable job skill for any web designer, it also serves as a useful primer for learning any programming language. Being able to create a .PHP document for a website can increase the functionality, interactivity, and even the beauty of almost any site.