Fun Etymology Tuesday – Bug

If current_day == Tuesday

print “Hello faithful followers!”
run (FunEtymology.exe)

return TRUE

Hello faithful followers!

On today’s Fun Etymology, we’ll start a miniseries of maybe five episodes or so dedicated to computers (as you might have guessed from the horrific imitation of code used as a greeting today). Computers are a relatively new phenomenon, having really taken off only in the latter part of the 1960s, but they already have an extensive, intriguing, and sometimes funny terminology associated with them.
Today we’re going to explore the history of the word “bug”.

The root meaning of the word “bug”, as you all know, is “insect”, but the origin of the word is shrouded in mystery. It only appeared in English in the 1620s, with no indication of where it could have come from.
The most common hypothesis is that it might be a descendant of the Middle English word “bugge”, meaning “monster” or “something frightening”, a meaning which only survived in the modern word “bugbear”, which is NOT a plantigrade with arthropodal characteristics, but a kind of goblin.

The origin of the word “bugge” are hypothesised to lie either in Welsh “bwg” meaning “goblin” or “monster”, or in the same Indo-European root that gave English the word “buck”, a male goat.

We all know what computer bugs are, and we’ve probably met many in our dealings with these friendly (for now) machines: it’s when some fault in a programme causes errors and malfunctioning, which in extreme cases can shut it down.
The term as applied to computers can be traced back to the 1940s and 50s, when the very first computers were operated through electromechanical switches, little iron switches which could flick open and closed dozens of times per second, thanks to magnetic actuators.
Unfortunately, the electromagnetic fields needed to operate these switches attracted certain species of moths, which use them to orient themselves in space, and from time to time one would get caught in a switch, blocking it and crashing the computer.
That’s why we say that a malfunctioning programme has a “bug”.

See you next time!

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