Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Hidden History of "Glitch"

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.

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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 more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 4th 2013, 4:15 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Living in Germany, I can confirm that "glitschig" (adj., slippery) is still in everyday use here today, although the verb no longer is in High German, only in dialects. As an adjective, it describes things like a wet fish that slips out of your hands, or the still-runny dough in a cake that has not fully cooked. There is always an element of liquidity around the edges about it, especially in the meaning of the dialectal "Glitschbahn" (slide path), a children’s slide on the ice of a frozen pond where friction causes the surface to melt slightly. There is no noun "Glitsch" in German that I know of.

My "Duden" (the standard German dictionary) says "glitschen" or "glitzschen" (to glide) is late Middle High German. Yiddish originated in the Rhineland in Germany in that era.
I personally have noticed that a lot of Yiddish words I come across in books by US authors could be straight out of the dialects along the Upper to Middle Rhine valley.

"Glitch" in the electrical sense was already in use in the UK in the mid-1970s when I was studying physics. The more colloquial use as a severe "slip-up" came later.
Monday November 4th 2013, 4:19 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Please excuse the "children’s".
That should have been "children's", of course.
Monday November 4th 2013, 8:19 AM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
Thanks for the definition of glitch, and to Alice M. for her contribution. Very interesting. We certainly have a glitchy-glitzschen in Obamacare.
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
@Alice M: was "children’s" a glitch?
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 3:32 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
@ Gordon W.
That's an unexplained one ;-)
How on earth did you manage to reproduce that character string?
I really don't know what happened in my posts. I didn't realize the comment posting facility in VT cannot handle typographic apostrophes. Only a non-proportional font seems to pass. The first glitch came about by copying into and out of MS Word to edit as my text got longer, and the second one was produced by copying the first glitch out of the first comment into the second comment. Glitch squared! After that, I just gave up.... On the other hand, I thought: "how apt".
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Alice M., I think if you will choose "Paste as plain text", you won't get the strings of weird characters.
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Thanks, Sue B., but "Paste as plain text" (something I am very familiar with) is a command in MS Word that is not accessible to me in this comment posting window. And in any case, "Paste as plain text" will automatically assume the background formatting settings in whatever local application program you are using. The question is why a typographical apostrophe should be interpreted here (by the underlying HTML code) as one string of characters (see my first post), but when I copied that string out of the first post and pasted it into the second comment (in this browser window, not in MS Word), although it looked identical to the character string in the first post BEFORE I posted the second comment, that very same character string suddenly mutated to the string in my second post AFTER I had hit the "Post comment" button.
That was why I was puzzled as to why Gordon W. had been able to copy-paste the second string without getting yet another mutation.
I doubt whether he took the trouble to type in all the special characters one by one.
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 5:07 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
You mean that if you click right on this comment window, "Paste as plain text" is not there?
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
That is exactly what I mean. It may be that it is available on my other computers with newer setups with English operating system and browser (haven't tried them yet), but on this (admittedly elderly) system with German versions of Windows XP and Internet Explorer 8, there is just "Paste" and nothing else.
That's why I said "not accessible to me", not that it didn't exist.
However, that still doesn't answer my question about the HTML mechanics involved.
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 6:15 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
No, it doesn't, because I have no idea about that. I was just trying to be helpful about the paste thing. It's better to ask a dumb question than to risk having a simple answer and not giving it. Don't you think?
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 6:33 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
I agree completely, Sue B. And thank you again. If I seemed churlish, it wasn't intended. I wasn't actually bothered about the funny character strings initially, but with all the focus on them I now feel challenged in a sporting way to find out exactly why the "glitches" happened. Call it a quirk, if you like. ;-)
Tuesday November 5th 2013, 7:03 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
All's well! I hope you do find out about the character strings--I've seen them appear in odd contexts from others' posts, texts, comments, etc., and have never heard any explanation for them. Maybe you'll post here whatever you find out. Since I get notified of comments to this article, I'll get the benefits of your research! :)
Friday November 8th 2013, 11:32 AM
Comment by: C S.
I use glitch as an everyday saying, because I am a gamer so its usually a common saying amongst my friends, etc. However, I had no idea that it had this type of a background at all. I really enjoyed reading this post and the comments.
It has really broadened my understanding of the word.
And also, HeatheCare.gov sure does have some glitches to fix.

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