Moment Magazine, “A Yiddish Word Goes Galactic”

September 18, 2015

Anna Isaacs, “A Yiddish Word Goes Galactic” (Moment Magazine, Sept. 18, 2015)

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer uncovered the missing link between radio and space during the debacle, penning a column on the subject in The Wall Street Journal. Before taking on cosmic significance, glitch passed through television. Zimmer found a 1955 Bell Telephone ad in Billboard describing the company argot: “And 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 trade magazine piece about tape-splicing explains: “‘Glitch’ is slang for the ‘momentary jiggle’ that occurs at the editing point if the sync pulses don’t match exactly in the splice.”

Zimmer delights in the historical happenstance. “Glitch becomes entrenched among radio technicians, then television technicians, and then space technicians, and then computer technicians,” he says. Most of its existence, he adds, has been “under the radar as this technical term.” But no longer. Thanks to the ubiquity of crashing computers and freezing smartphone screens, the word has even inspired an artistic style that embraces error as an aesthetic ideal. But its Yiddish root is subtle enough that it often falls victim to the “backronym”—an apocryphal acronym retroactively applied to a word of mysterious origin. Such gems include “Gremlins Loose In The Computer Hut” and “Gremlins Lurking In The Computer Hardware.” Says Zimmer: “People have a lot of fun trying to explain where things come from.”

Read the rest here.

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