The Origins Of “Glitch”

President Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other members of the Obama Administration have often referred to the problems with the Healthcare.gov website as “glitches.”  It made me wonder:  what is the history of the word “glitch”?

Sometimes tracing the derivation of a word is difficult, but that apparently is not the case with “glitch.”  Several internet sources say the first recorded use of the word in English occurred in 1962, in the writing of Ohio native John Glenn.  Glenn wrote that the Mercury astronauts used the word “glitch” to describe “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current.”  In the decades since, the use of the word has expanded beyond the electrical realm to apply to a number of technological snafus.

That’s all well and good — but why use “glitch” as opposed to some other combination of consonants and vowels?  Many people think it’s derived from Yiddish, where “glitsh” refers to a slippery area or skating ground.  It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a sudden dip in an electrical current might be seen as similar to a slip on ice.

Language is a fascinating, ever-changing thing.  Who would have thought, for example, that the Oxford dictionaries would include a word like “twerk” (particularly given its meaning)?  And who knows whether the repeated use of “glitch” in connection with the Affordable Care Act website issues will cause the accepted understanding of that term to change — to the point, for example, where describing something as a “glitch” provokes laughter and is perceived as a conscious attempt to downplay the significance of a serious problem?

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Consumer Reports Meets Healthcare.gov

When Kish and I need to buy a car, a major appliance, or some other significant product, we typically consult Consumer Reports.  There we find objective evaluations of our potential purchases by knowledgeable analysts, written in plain English accessible to the non-gearheads and non-techies among us.

So, I was interested when Consumer Reports tackled the process of trying to use Healthcare.gov, the federal government’s health exchange website.  It makes sense when you think about it.  One of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act is to get uninsured consumers to buy insurance, so why not have one of the country’s preeminent consumer publications take a look at the process from the consumer’s standpoint?

Unfortunately, the Consumer Reports review of the Healthcare.gov process isn’t very encouraging.  It notes that of the nearly 9.5 million people who apparently tried to register on Healthcare.gov in the first week of its operation, only 271,000 — about 1 in 35 — were successful.  The article then provides tips about how to increase your chances of successfully navigating the website, offered by a software pro who has taken a careful look.  (You can find the software pro’s blog, which addresses some of the problems he has found with the website, here.)  Among other issues, he finds the instructions “garbled” and “needlessly complicated,” advises that you should simply ignore error messages that do not match reality, recommends that you immediately try a new user name, password, and security questions if “anything at all doesn’t go right,” and suggests that you check your e-mailbox frequently for a confirmatory e-mail, because Healthcare.gov will time you out if you don’t respond promptly.  The software guy also notes that many people are experiencing problems because of a crucial design error on the website:  it loads “cookies” and other code onto user computers during the registration process that prove to be too large for Healthcare.gov to accept back.

Consumer Reports also recommends that potential users “[s]tay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can,” because “[h]opefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they’ve made.”  This advice is particularly interesting, because Consumer Reports also believes that the best source of information about healthcare options for consumers who are looking to buy health insurance themselves is through the health insurance marketplace in their state and Healthcare.gov — if it could only be made to work.