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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