Metasyntactic variables are so called because (1) they are variables in the metalanguage used to talk about programs etc; (2) they are variables whose values are often variables (as in usages like "the value of f(foo,bar) is the sum of foo and bar"). However, it has been plausibly suggested that the real reason for the term "metasyntactic variable" is that it sounds good.
To some extent, the list of one's preferred metasyntactic variables is a cultural signature. They occur both in series (used for related groups of variables or objects) and as singletons. Here are a few common signatures:
foo , bar , baz , quux quuux, quuuux...: MIT/Stanford usage, now found everywhere (thanks largely to early versions of this lexicon!). At MIT (but not at Stanford), baz dropped out of use for a while in the 1970s and '80s. A common recent mutation of this sequence inserts qux before quux bazola, ztesch: Stanford (from mid-'70s on). foo , bar thud, grunt: This series was popular at CMU. Other CMU-associated variables include gorp foo , bar bletch: Waterloo University. We are informed that the CS club at Waterloo formerly had a sign on its door reading "Ye Olde Foo Bar and Grill"; this led to an attempt to establish "grill" as the third metasyntactic variable, but it never caught on. foo , bar fum: This series is reported to be common at XEROX PARC. fred , jim, sheila, barney See the entry for fred These tend to be Britishisms. corge , grault , flarp Popular at Rutgers University and among GOSMACS hackers. zxc, spqr, wombat: Cambridge University (England). shme Berkeley, GeoWorks, Ingres. Pronounced /shme/ with a short /e/. foo, bar, baz, bongo Yale, late 1970s. spam, eggs Python programmers. snork Brown University, early 1970s. foo , bar zot Helsinki University of Technology, Finland. blarg, wibble New Zealand. toto, titi, tata, tutu France. pippo, pluto, paperino Italy. Pippo /pee'po/ and Paperino /pa-per-ee'-no/ are the Italian names for Goofy and Donald Duck. aap, noot, mies The Netherlands. These are the first words a child used to learn to spell on a Dutch spelling board. oogle, foogle, boogle; zork, gork, bork These two series (which may be continued with other initial consonents) are reportedly common in England, and said to go back to Lewis Carroll. Of all these, only `foo' and `bar' are universal (and baz nearly so). The compounds foobar and `foobaz' also enjoy very wide currency.
Some jargon terms are also used as metasyntactic names; barf and mumble , for example. See also Commonwealth Hackish for discussion of numerous metasyntactic variables found in Great Britain and the Commonwealth.