Introducing SQL and Relational Databases

Nomenclature Confusion

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This video segment explains the terminology used by database practitioners.


  • file
  • field
  • record
  • relation
  • attribute
  • tuple
  • table
  • row
  • column

About this video

Allen Taylor
First online
12 January 2019
Online ISBN
Copyright information
© Allen Taylor 2019

Video Transcript

Speaker: If you hang around veteran database people for any length of time, it’s likely that you will be confused by some of the terminology that they use. It may seem that they’ll discuss a database item calling it one thing and then a minute later, turn around and refer to the same thing by a different name. The problem is not with your hearing. They really are using multiple terms to refer to the same things. This has come about because modern database practice has its roots in three different disciplines, each with its own names for the fundamental components of a database. In the previous segment, I referred to the primary components of the relational model as relations. That’s a term that comes from one of the three sources of terminology about databases. The theoreticians who developed relational database theory used that term. They also had terms for the components of a relation. The different types of facts about a relation were called the attributes of the relation and individual instances of a relation were called tuples. We say were, but all these terms are still used today.

About the same time that relational theory was being formulated, the electronic spreadsheet was being developed both on mainframe computers in enterprises and also on personal computers. Today, Microsoft Excel is the most widespread example of such spreadsheets. In many ways, a spreadsheet is like a relation, but the spreadsheet people had different names for the things that relational theoreticians called relations, attributes and tuples. The spreadsheet people call these things: tables, columns and rows. The third community that was involved in storing data on computers in the 1970s was the personal computer hobbyists. They called these three things: files, fields and records. Developers who kept up on progress in all three areas came to use all three sets of terminology interchangeably. They still do so today leading to some puzzlement by newcomers to the field. I find the spreadsheet nomenclature the most natural and will use tables, columns and rows when referring to a database. And when I speak of the relational model, I will probably go with relations, attributes and tuples, but don’t hold me to it.