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Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines to grok as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment".
Robert A. Heinlein originally coined the term grok in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land as a Martian word that could not be defined in Earthling terms, but can be associated with various literal meanings such as "water", "to drink", "life", or "to live", and had a much more profound figurative meaning that is hard for terrestrial culture to understand because of its assumption of a singular reality.
According to the book, drinking is a central focus on Mars, where water is scarce. Martians use the merging of their bodies with water as a simple example or symbol of how two entities can combine to create a new reality greater than the sum of its parts. The water becomes part of the drinker, and the drinker part of the water. Both grok each other. Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history, and purpose. Within the book, the statement of divine immanence verbalized between the main characters, "Thou Art God", is logically derived from the concept inherent in the term grok.
Heinlein describes Martian words as "guttural" and "jarring". Martian speech is described as sounding "like a bullfrog fighting a cat". Accordingly, grok is generally pronounced as a guttural gr terminated by a sharp k with very little or no vowel sound (a narrow IPA transcription might be [ɡɹ̩kʰ]).
Uses of the word in the decades after the 1960s are more concentrated in computer culture, such as a 1984 appearance in InfoWorld: "There isn't any software! Only different internal states of hardware. It's all hardware! It's a shame programmers don't grok that better."
The Jargon File, which describes itself as a "Hacker's Dictionary" and has been published under that name three times, puts grok in a programming context:
When you claim to 'grok' some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity. For example, to say that you "know" Lisp is simply to assert that you can code in it if necessary — but to say you "grok" LISP is to claim that you have deeply entered the world-view and spirit of the language, with the implication that it has transformed your view of programming. Contrast zen, which is a similar supernatural understanding experienced as a single brief flash.
The entry existed in the very earliest forms of the Jargon File, dating from the early 1980s. A typical tech usage from the Linux Bible, 2005 characterizes the Unix software development philosophy as "one that can make your life a lot simpler once you grok the idea".
The book Perl Best Practices defines grok as understanding a portion of computer code in a profound way. It goes on to suggest that to re-grok code is to reload the intricacies of that portion of code into one's memory after some time has passed and all the details of it are no longer remembered. In that sense, to grok means to load everything into memory for immediate use. It is analogous to the way a processor caches memory for short term use, but the only implication by this reference was that it was something that a human (or maybe a Martian) would do.
The book Cyberia covers its use in this subculture extensively:
This is all latter day usage, the original derivation was from an early text processing utility from so long ago that no one remembers but, grok was the output when it understood the file. K&R would remember.
Tom Wolfe, in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), describes a character's thoughts during an acid trip: "He looks down, two bare legs, a torso rising up at him and like he is just noticing them for the first time... he has never seen any of this flesh before, this stranger. He groks over that...."
In his counterculture Volkswagen repair manual, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (1969), dropout aerospace engineer John Muir instructs prospective used VW buyers to "grok the car" before buying.
Ed Sanders' book The Family (2002) erroneously states that convicted murderer Charles Manson was a fan of Heinlein and Stranger and adopted many of the terms associated with both including grok and thou art God. This was later proven untrue in interviews with Manson himself as he had never heard of the book. Some of his followers had heard of it and read it but Manson never used the book to justify the murders or any of his other activities.
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