The persistent glitchiness of HealthCare.gov, the website implementing the Affordable Care Act, has given us much time to ponder that peculiar little word, glitch. As it happens, some new research on the word brings its origin, most likely from Yiddish, into a sharper perspective.
I've had a couple of occasions to expound on glitch lately, in my Wall Street Journal column and in a brief interview for NPR's "All Things Considered." But some recently uncovered evidence of the early development of glitch deserves a fuller airing.
Dictionaries have thus far given only a partial view of how glitch developed. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its second edition of 1989, unsatisfyingly says that its etymology is "unknown." The OED also suggests that the word's original meaning was "a surge of current or a spurious electrical signal," later extended in "astronaut's slang" to mean "a hitch or snag; a malfunction."
This reconstruction of the word's semantic history seems to be entirely based on a 1962 quote (the earliest given by the OED and other dictionaries) from John Glenn, in his contribution to Into Orbit, a book jointly written by the original seven astronauts of Project Mercury. Glenn wrote:
Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was "glitch." Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it. You have probably noticed a dimming of lights in your home when you turn a switch or start the dryer or the television set. Normally, these changes in voltage are protected by fuses. A glitch, however, is such a minute change in voltage that no fuse could protect against it.
One might surmise from this that Glenn and his fellow astronauts took a highly technical term and "adopted" it into a more general term for any malfunction. But that overlooks the history of the term predating the space program — a history only now becoming clear.
A glimmer of this backstory emerged when William Safire discussed glitch in an "On Language" column for The New York Times back in 1980. Safire thought the term dated from the '60s in aeronautical use, but noted that it "probably originated in the German and Yiddish glitschen, meaning 'slip,' and by extension, 'error.'" Others, such as Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, have claimed glitch as a Yiddishism. But how do we get from Yiddish lingo to Cape Canaveral mishaps?
None other than the actor Tony Randall supplied a piece of the puzzle. In a letter responding to Safire's column, reproduced in the 1982 "On Language" anthology What's the Good Word?, Randall wrote:
The first time I heard the word "glitch" was in 1941 in Worcester. I got a job there as an announcer at WTAG. When an announcer made a mistake, such as putting on the wrong record or reading the wrong commercial, anything technical, or anything concerning the sales department, that was called a "glitch" and had to be entered on the Glitch Sheet, which was a mimeographed form. The older announcers told me the term had been used as long as they could remember.
There matters stood until a few years ago, when there was a flurry of "antedating" (searching for ever-earlier citations) among the word researchers who participate in the American Dialect Society mailing list. Plumbing newspaper databases, Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro came up with the new date to beat: May 19, 1940. That was when the novelist Katharine Brush wrote about glitch in her column "Out of My Mind" (syndicated in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and other papers). Brush corroborated Tony Randall's radio recollection:
When the radio talkers make a little mistake in diction they call it a "fluff," and when they make a bad one they call it a "glitch," and I love it.
Other examples from the world of radio can be found in the 1940s. The April 11, 1943 issue of the Washington Post carried a review of Helen Sioussat's book about radio broadcasting, Mikes Don't Bite. The reviewer noted an error and wrote, "In the lingo of radio, has Miss Sioussat pulled a 'muff,' 'fluff,' 'bust,' or 'glitch'?" And in a 1948 book called The Advertising and Business Side of Radio, Ned Midgley explained how a radio station's "traffic department" was responsible for properly scheduling items in a broadcast. "Usually most 'glitches,' as on-the-air mistakes are called, can be traced to a mistake on the part of the traffic department," Midgley wrote.
Further digging reveals that in the 1950s, glitch made the transition from radio to television. In a 1953 ad in Broadcasting Magazine, RCA boasted that their TV camera has "no more a-c power line 'glitches' (horizontal-bar interference)." And Bell Telephone ran an ad in a 1955 issue of Billboard showing two technicians monitoring the TV signals that were broadcast on Bell System lines: "When he talks of 'glitch' with a fellow technician, he means a low frequency interference which appears as a narrow horizontal bar moving vertically through the picture."
A 1959 article in Sponsor, a trade magazine for television and radio advertisers, gave another technical usage in an article about editing TV commercials by splicing tape. "'Glitch' is slang for the 'momentary jiggle' that occurs at the editing point if the sync pulses don't match exactly in the splice." Sponsor also gave the earliest etymological explanation I've seen: "'Glitch' probably comes from a German or Yiddish word meaning a slide, a glide or a slip."
So, by the time that glitch entered the space program in the '60s, it had enjoyed a long life in radio and television, referring to a variety of technical problems. And when astronauts used it in a general way for any hitch or snag, it was in fact a return to how glitch was introduced into radio broadcasting circles a few decades earlier.
Though we still don't know for sure if the term was imported via Yiddish or came directly from German, a Yiddish origin certainly seems more likely. I'm not aware of any evidence of its use in historically German-speaking regions in the U.S., and its emergence in radio circa 1940 is telling, given the active role of Yiddish speakers in the world of radio at the time. So the next time you run into a glitch on HealthCare.gov or some other site, give a thought to the on-air flubs by Yiddish-slinging radio announcers of years past.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer