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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

glitch

(1980’s | enginese?, computerese? | “hiccup,” “technical difficulties,” “slip,” “screw-up”)

A word with many meanings and many parents, or maybe fewer than it appears at first glance. “Glitch” seems to have arisen in the sixties, probably in the space program. It may be descended from “glitch” used as a technical term in astronomy to mean “sudden change in rate of rotation of a pulsar.” But I’m not sure which came first or how they may have influenced each other. As early as the seventies, computer jocks commandeered the term, generally using it to mean “inexplicable malfunction.” (That seems to have been what NASA engineers meant by it, too.) A rather charming IBM magazine ad from 1981 offered to fix “bugs, burps, and glitches,” which might afflict even their superior machines. “Glitch” could refer to an interruption in an electrical power supply or signal, including audio and video broadcasts. These things are all related, and there does seem to be an underlying common meaning, to wit, a failure of technology, usually minor or temporary but not necessarily.

Or at least that was true thirty years ago, but now glitches need have little or nothing to do with technical capability. My sense is that the word is often reserved for predicaments caused by technology, but the link is no longer necessary. Another connotation of the term in its early life was that a glitch was not trivial, but not catastrophic, either. I found an article in “Analog Science Fiction” (1971) that explicitly contrasted “glitch” with “catastrophe.” (A glitch could be neutralized by clever improvisation, even if proper tools were not to hand.) But the main point of a glitch was that no one could quite figure out how it happened. No less an observer than Norman Mailer (“Of a Fire on the Moon,” 1970) illustrated the concept with the example of an “unaccountable electrical phenomenon like the light on an instrument panel suddenly turning on when the machine it serviced was most definitely off.” A glitch was the sort of thing a gremlin might cause. Again, while this implication is no longer necessary, my ear tells me that “glitches” more often take place without direct human agency — but again, you could come up with counterexamples without looking very hard.

Most dictionaries ascribe a Yiddish origin to “glitch,” which seems reasonable. (“Glitshen” is Yiddish for “to slip” or “slide,” which is not too far from “slip up” or “fail to perform as advertised.” “Glatt,” most often heard as an adjective modifying “kosher,” literally means “slick” or “slippery.”) I wonder if the rhyme with “hitch” didn’t help it get settled. “Hitch” can also refer to an interruption, and it was used (most often in the negative, as in “without a hitch”) to allude to a problem that keeps the job from being completed. “Glitch,” to this day, is almost always deployed as a noun. I found one or two instances of the verb as long ago as the seventies, but that never seems to have caught on.

Technically, this term may be a little too old for the blog; it was used regularly in at least a few mainstream periodicals by 1980, and it may have been considered an established expression by then. Well, I’ve cheated before: ramp up, hype, state of the art. I got drawn into the tangled origins of the term and kept going.

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