Jewish Word // Glitch

By | Sep 18, 2015
Image: A Work of Glitch Art

A Yiddish Word Goes Galactic

by Anna Isaacs

Technology inexplicably fails us often enough to need a word for the occasion, and glitch has slipped in to fill the void. Newspaper headlines routinely illustrate the word’s versatility and popularity. When thousands of travelers find themselves stranded: “Computer glitch cancels East Coast flights.” When a much-anticipated website launch screeches to a halt: “’s glitches prompt Obama to call in more computer experts.” When a casual drugstore purchase racks up an outsize debit statement: “Walgreens’ glitch causes two charges.”

We take glitch for granted now, but it wasn’t always this way. On September 3, 1976, when the Viking 2 successfully alighted on Mars after a communications failure, the St. Petersburg Times ran the headline, “Viking II lands with glitch.” The word baffled enough subscribers to prompt the newspaper to publish two columns in explanation. One helpful reader, Rabbi Louis M. Lederman, called in to offer this accounting: The word came from Yiddish, meaning to slip or slide.

Unlike other Yiddishisms that populate the American lexicon, glitch doesnt particularly sound like something your bubbe would say. But Yiddishist Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch, says glitshn means to slip on ice or to go skating. “Normally its, you know, I went outside in November and I—ikh hob zikh a glitsh geton. I slid on the ice, but managed to keep my balance,” he says. “You slip. You dont necessarily fall.” Wex reports that Yiddish-speaking children in Eastern Europe who slid down snow-covered hills were particularly fond of a move called the vayoymer Dovd glitsh or the “and David said slide.” Adopting the posture of the tachanun prayer, from whose first line the name is taken, they would lower their faces to their forearms before embarking, blind, on their slippery descent. (The prayer is also known as the nefilat apayim, or “falling on the face.”)

When Rabbi Lederman called the Florida newsroom in 1976, he had a theory for how glitch had gone galactic. “I suspect that a Jewish engineer in a space laboratory once referred offhand to some problem with a space vehicle as a ‘glitch,” he said, “and the expression just caught on.” This explanation hewed pretty closely to the best available knowledge of glitchs provenance at the time: a 1972 entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the earliest citation of the word dated back to astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 account of Project Mercury. According to Glenn, he and the other astronauts adopted the term to describe a transitory technical issue. “Literally,” he wrote in Into Orbit, “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.”

Unbeknownst to Glenn, this was not the first adaptation of the word in a technical context, which likely occurred in the golden age of radio. In 1980, the late William Safire wrote about the word in his “On Language” column in The New York Times, and received a letter in response from the actor Tony Randall, recalling that he’d heard the word in 1941 when he landed an announcer gig at a radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. “The older announcers told me the term had been used as long as they could remember,” he wrote, to refer to such errors as putting on the wrong record or reading the wrong commercial. (These mistakes were chronicled on a mimeographed “Glitch Sheet.”)

It’s easy to see how the Yiddish word would have made its way into radio studios. In the early days, the airwaves were filled with Yiddish speakers. Henry Sapoznik, a Yiddish historian and sound archivist, has tallied 186 stations between 1924 and 1955 that carried Yiddish programming. “To get Yiddish radio, I mean, all you had to do was to turn the dial a half an inch in one direction or the other,” he says. As a new medium in need of a new vernacular, radio repurposed and reimagined terminology. There were invented words, such as “kilocycle,” and borrowed ones, such as “broadcast”—taken from agriculture, Sapoznik explains, where it referred to the casting of seeds in a field. A Yale law librarian named Fred Shapiro dates the first printed record of glitch’s radio pedigree to a 1940 syndicated newspaper column by novelist Katharine Brush. She wrote: “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.”

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 ‘glitchwith 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 dont 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.”

One thought on “Jewish Word // Glitch

  1. Paul Brians says:

    Although the Oxford English Dictionary says that the etymology of “glitch” is “unknown,” I’m betting there is some relationship with “glissade”: “The action of sliding down a steep slope (esp. of ice or snow)” (OED)

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