Hello, fellow users of the World Wide Web.
It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for our usual appointment with Fun Etymologies.
Today we continue our little series of words which have acquired a new meaning with the rise of computers with an exploration of the word “patch”.
This word, like many other words, comes from Old French, but what its original form was exactly is a bit of a mystery. The most common conjecture is that it comes from Northern Old French “pieche”, a dialectal variation of the Old French word “piece”, which was imported into English unchanged, another example of words splitting in two during their history.
The ultimate root of the word is the Indo-European root *kwezd- “division, piece”, which evolved into Gaulish *pettsi, which was then borrowed into Vulgar Latin as *pettia (pronounced “pettsia”) and finally evolved into the form we all know and love today.
As far as computers are concerned, a patch is a change applied to a program’s code in order to correct bugs (see last week’s Fun Etymology for the history of this one!), and its name once again goes back to the earliest computers. Back in the day, computer programs were stored on punch cards: pieces of cardboard with patterns of holes punched into them which told the computer which circuits to switch on or off and when. Writing a program in this format was tedious work, not to mention that these programs were often huge (thousands of cards long). This meant that mistakes often crept in.
When the mistake consisted of a lack of a hole where one should have been, the solution was simply punching in the missing hole; but when the mistake was a hole where no hole should have been, how would one go about solving it?
The solution was quite literally applying a patch to the extra holes, so that the machine would not be able to read them, as seen in the photo below.
So next time your Xbox starts downloading a patch for your favourite game and you have to wait for it to finish, take solace in the fact that at least you don’t have to physically patch thousands of holes on a mile-long strip of paper.