Grok all the things

grok (v): to understand (something) intuitively.


🙄  Cynics & grumps

Ah, AWK, the programming language that feels like a blast from the past, a time when computers were the size of a room, and engineers had handlebar mustaches. Granddaddy AWK has been around since the late 70s, yet somehow, it is still lurking in the shadows, waiting to reemerge when you least expect it. But let's face it, AWK does have some redeeming qualities, or else it would've met the same fate as other long-forgotten languages. So buckle up, and let's take a stroll down memory lane.

AWK, named after its creators (Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan), is an interpreted scripting language primarily designed for text processing. When it was first developed, you can imagine the excitement – "Finally, a tool that can extract and manipulate data from files without having to write an entire C or assembly program!" exclaimed the programmers of yesteryear. I mean, can you blame them? Who wouldn't want a concise way to perform actions on lines of text that match specific patterns?

Take a look at this AWK one-liner that sums up all the numbers in a file:

awk '{ sum += $1 } END { print sum }' my_numbers.txt

If you squint hard enough at your terminal while running this command, you might just see a glimmer of why people still use AWK. It adds up all the numbers in my_numbers.txt with such elegance that it almost makes you forget that modern scripting languages exist.

But let's not get carried away; everything isn't all sunshine and rainbows. AWK has its quirks like any other language. For instance, it uses this alien syntax called "regular expressions" for pattern matching. If you haven't heard of regular expressions before, well, congratulations on your blissful ignorance! Regular expressions are like a puzzle within a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma.

Then there are AWK's variables. You'd think declaring them is straightforward enough, but no. AWK likes to keep things exciting through its laissez-faire approach to variable declaration. You don't have to declare variables before using them; they just magically appear – with the value of 0 or an empty string, depending on the context. Consider this short snippet of AWK code:

    name = "Alan"
    print "Hello, " name

This code prints "Hello, Alan" (truly groundbreaking stuff, I know). Notice how we didn't need to declare the variable name? AWK whispers in our ear, "Go ahead, use a variable without declaring it. I'll take care of the rest." It's like programming with training wheels!

As you might expect from an ancient language, AWK has its performance limitations. It was designed for relatively small text files and handles them quite well. But ask AWK to process gigabytes worth of data, and it'll huff and puff like an old steam engine trying to chug uphill.

Despite all the snark, it's hard to deny that AWK has left its mark on the world of programming. It paved the way for modern scripting languages like Perl and Python, which have adopted many of its concepts (but thankfully, improved upon them). Ultimately, AWK remains a testament to human ingenuity and the desire to simplify complex tasks.

So next time you stumble across an AWK script while rummaging through dusty old repositories, don't dismiss it outright. Instead, take a moment to appreciate the fact that you're gazing upon a piece of computing history that somehow, against all odds, refuses to fade away. is a collection of articles on a variety of technology and programming articles assembled by James Padolsey. Enjoy! And please share! And if you feel like you can donate here so I can create more free content for you.