A relatively recent addition to the world of computer user interface, a tooltip is a textual description of an icon or other widget, which appears when one holds the mouse pointer over that widget. This permits the widget to be somewhat self-documenting.

For instance, suppose you do not know what the icon of a rubber stamp means in the button bar of your graphical text editor. If the editor supports tooltips, then by holding the mouse pointer over that icon, you can summon a tooltip bearing the word "Paste". This tells you that the icon invokes the editor's paste function.

I first saw tooltips as such in a version of Microsoft Word, several years ago. They are prefigured somewhat by the Macintosh's Balloon Help feature, which does much the same thing (but is arguably both more flexible and more intrusive). They are now widely used in various X-based applications for Linux and Unix, as well as on Windows and Macintosh programs.

A written explanation of a hieroglyphicon.

Right now I'm looking at Mozilla. I've got a left arrow (with a small triangle pointing down), a shaded-out(?) right arrow (no small triangles), a curved upwards arrow, and a shaded-out X. Thanks to the miracle of tooltips, by keeping my mouse on them for an inordinately long amount of time I can get an explanation of what they are. And in English (not Ancient Egyptian), to boot!

On the bottom I've got half of a ship's wheel, a sealed envelope, and two cryptic images that I can't even name. Alas, no Rosetta Stonetooltips here, so I've no idea what they are or how to read them.

The original idea of icons were that they're intuitive and needed no explanation. Unlike textual items. Oh well.

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