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I don't work every day with big-endian and little-endian problems and thus I find very difficult to remember which one is what.

Recently I got an interview asking the difference between the two; since I didn't remember I decided to "guess" (50% chance, after all) but I failed.

So, is there any wide known pratical trick to remember what is the difference between big endian and little endian?

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I thin kyou are better off stating what endianess is and saying you can never remember which way round it is so you always google it –  jk. Apr 4 '12 at 11:44
I too have problems remembering it and there are too many confusing mnemotechnic tricks. My only reliable help is to cast the endianness spell on google so that I get the Wikipedia article. –  mouviciel Apr 4 '12 at 12:49
Funny coincidence - I only stumbled on this link today, and it's surprisingly relevant commandcenter.blogspot.com/2012/04/byte-order-fallacy.html –  Nevermind Apr 4 '12 at 14:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've always thought that it's defined the wrong way, and that's also the tip to remember it. As a non-native English speaker, I see "end" as the opposite of "start" (although obviously "end" can mean either end - the start end, or the end end). Anyway, I just remember that "it's defined the wrong way" :)

  • In big endian, the most significant (biggest) byte is in the start.
  • In little endian, the least significant (littlest) byte is in the start.

Or, referring to bit endianness:

  • 128 64 32 16 8 4 2 1 is big endian, because it ends to the little.
  • 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 is little endian, because it ends to the big.

Even though the usual use of the word endianness refers to how bytes are ordered within a word, its generic meaning refers to the ordering of individually addressable sub-components within the representation of a larger data item (as explained in Wikipedia).

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ahh, but the little-endian lilliputians started (cracked) their eggs at the little end so it is the right way round –  jk. Apr 4 '12 at 11:57
-1: Endian-ness refers to bytes within a word, not bits within a byte. –  kdgregory Apr 4 '12 at 12:29
@kdgregory - In the end, bit numbering is impacted within a word. Have you tried bit-field structs accross different endians? I agree that the answer has it wrong, though. –  mouviciel Apr 4 '12 at 12:54
@Kdgregory: According to Wikipedia, endianness refers to the ordering of individually addressable sub-components within the representation of a larger data item. That's the generic case. There's also a notion of bit endianness. You're right in that the most common use of endianness refers to how bytes are ordered within a word, and my examples admittedly didn't reflect that. Replaced the first example with the common case. –  Joonas Pulakka Apr 4 '12 at 12:55
@kdgregory: Since when is existence of hardware required to justify CS theoretical notions? But very well: 8051 has bit-addressable registers. Ada language allows specifying the appropriate bit order for data type representation (pdf). Transmission order of bits over a serial medium of course needs to define bit endianness. The fact that the usual use of "endianness" refers to a special case (bytes in words) doesn't invalidate its generic meaning. –  Joonas Pulakka Apr 4 '12 at 14:41

My own tip :

  • big endian = big-end first ! (the first byte (lowest address) is the MSB)
  • little endian = little-end first ! (the first byte (lowest address) is the LSB)
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Yes, this is the way I think of it: Big Endian "Starts at the BIG end", while Little Endian "Starts at the Little end". It's like a baseball bat, there are two ends of the bat, one is big, the other is little. It's really not that hard of a concept. –  Shane Kilkelly Apr 4 '12 at 12:29

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