In a Word: Bugs and the Computers They Infest

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

There’s a well-worn story about how the word bug came to denote an error or flaw in a computer’s software or hardware. It goes like this: In 1947, a woman named Grace Hopper was hunting down a problem with Harvard University’s Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator — essentially an early computer. While examining panel F, she discovered that a moth had worked its way into the system and perished at the number 70 relay, creating a short circuit. As the story goes, this moth — this “bug” — was the beginning of computer programmers referring to software and hardware problems as bugs.

It’s a perfect creation story for a new sense of a word. A little too perfect, actually. Could it really be that computer bugs got their name because an actual bug was discovered in an early computer by a woman whose name was practically grasshopper?

Whenever an etymologically story works out this perfectly, you should be dubious. In this case, though, a lot of the information is accurate. Some of it is misplaced, though, and above all, the incident’s long-term effect on English has been greatly exaggerated.

There really was a computer engineer named Grace Hopper. She would eventually achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, but on September 9, 1947 — 73 years ago this week — she was a lieutenant in the Navy Reserves who really was overseeing Harvard’s Mark II calculator. She and her team were doing some maintenance and discovered, at the number 70 relay in panel F, a deceased moth that had been causing problems — there really was a bug in the system! However, Hopper wasn’t the one who extracted it; one of her colleagues did that.

We know all this detail because it was recorded in a log book that is now part of the Smithsonian Institute’s collection. In fact, the moth itself was taped onto the log book page, and what someone — possibly Grace Hopper — wrote beneath it gives us an even stronger refutation of this apocryphal word coinage story. This is what was written: “First actual case of bug being found.”

That phrase “first actual case” wouldn’t make any sense if computer engineers weren’t already calling computer problems bugs; the word must have been in regular use before this moth added its death to the historical record. A little research backs up the idea: Early computer engineers had, in fact, been referring to small problems as bugs long before the Mark II moth was found. But the concept goes back further still, before electronic computers: Thomas Edison was using bug in a similar way 70 years earlier.

In November 1878, in a letter to Theodore Puskas, Edison wrote this:

It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is intuition and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise — this thing gives out and [it is] then that “Bugs” — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.

That Edison put quotation marks around bugs and felt the need to define it indicates that this sense of the word wasn’t widely recognized at the time; many believe Edison himself coined this sense of the word.

Of course, bug itself is much older. It probably goes back the Middle English bugge, which, in the 14th century, referred to a scarecrow. By the late 16th century, it indicated anything that caused fright, especially pointless fright. That sense didn’t last long for bugge, but it still exists in the words bugbear, bugaboo, and bogeyman.

We find the first written uses of bug to refer to an insect in the 17th century, specifically to refer to the bedbug. Some purists still insist that the only true bugs are those that belong to the same genus as bedbugs, Hemiptera, which a moth does not. In popular use, though, bug has a wider scope, so Grace Hopper and her team can be forgiven for mislabeling the “bug” in their system. After all, they were computer engineers, not entomologists.

Featured image: polygraphus / Shutterstock

Wit’s End: On Modern Passwords, I’ll Take a Pass

I’ve never gone in for experimental prose. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the basics: structure, coherence, grammar — things like that.

But looking back over my life, I realize I’ve spent countless hours composing edgy, modernist words: random strings of numbers and letters that make a mockery of all meaning. The very sight of them evokes feelings of nihilistic despair.

I’m not trying to be artsy. In fact, I don’t want to make up these words at all. Yet, unless I constantly remember or invent new computer passwords, I am locked out of almost every aspect of my life.

Log into my work laptop? I have to type 52cHeezeball# or no dice.

Pay my kids’ school lunch accounts? [email protected]!

Purchase household supplies online? 522CHEezeBALL+++

Check my email? cheezeTOTHEballTOTHEcheezecheezeball_%

Order prints of vacation photos? balmoral*castle(scOTLand)_cheeze?

Watch old sitcoms on streaming video? #princECHARles+cHeeze4ever

Obviously, I can’t remember all these passwords. No one could. When I inevitably forget some random variant of “cheezeball,” I am asked a series of stressful personal questions, a quiz on minor details of my own life:

What was the name of your childhood pet?

Wait, which one? Pass.

Where did you meet your spouse?

Wait, which one? Pass.

What is your father’s mother’s uncle’s middle name?

Um . . . John?

Incorrect! What is your second-favorite food?

Er … tacos, I guess?

Incorrect! Why did William Shakespeare’s last will and testament provide for his wife, Anne Hathaway, to inherit his “second-best bed”? What was Shakespeare implying exactly? Was this some kind of diss to Anne?

Well, scholars disagree —

Incorrect! What is your sun sign in the Zodiac astrological system?

Virgo.

What house is that sign’s ruling planet in right now?

I don’t really keep track of —

You have made too many incorrect guesses. Your account is now locked for suspicious activity. Please contact customer service.

How did we get here? When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, people conducted business in person. If you wanted to buy something, you dragged a squirming child to the store, paid with cash or check, apologized for the mess your child made, and left.

For office work, you rolled a blank page into the electric typewriter and started typing — real sentences with subjects and verbs! Not gibberish.

I first needed a password in college to use the school computer lab. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just use ‘cheezeball,’ a simple term I can hold in my fresh young brain.”

But over the decades, passwords horribly multiplied and morphed until we reached the present state, which some have described as a “nightmare.”

That’s a quote from Fernando Corbató, who created the first computer password as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s. In a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Corbató — by then a trim, cheerful man of 87 — explained that he was trying to keep researchers from “needlessly nosing around in [each other’s] files.”

But in the 2010s, he said, “I don’t think anybody can possibly remember all the passwords that are issued or set up. That leaves people with two choices. Either you maintain a crib sheet, a mild no-no, or you use some sort of program as a password manager.” Corbató himself kept “three typed pages” of passwords and estimated he had used 150 different ones over the years.

In fact, the use of non-computer passwords dates back to ancient times. One of the earliest recorded passwords was “shibboleth,” a word that makes you sound drunk even when you say it correctly.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, after two tribes engaged in battle, the winning tribe posted guards at the river so their enemies couldn’t escape. Anyone trying to cross the river was forced to say “shibboleth,” which the tribes pronounced in different ways. One fellow came along and said: “Er . . . sibboleth?” Incorrect! He was promptly slain.

From the beginning, it seems, passwords have been mildly absurd. In 2003, they became more so with the publication of password tips by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2017, the agency “advised people to protect their accounts by inventing awkward new words rife with obscure characters, capital letters and numbers — and to change them regularly.”

These rules were widely adopted by government and corporations, yet the NIST staffer who wrote them, Bill Burr, remarked in 2017: “Much of what I did I now regret.” By then retired and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Burr admitted that constantly-changing passwords, larded with nonsense characters, actually don’t work very well.

Great, now you tell me! When I am neck-deep in the Cheezeball Variations and every function I perform is locked away behind a Cheezeball Wall, or CHeezeWaLL_9$8, because that’s just how I think now.

The most unsettling thing about today’s passwords is that they don’t stand between you and enemy territory or exclusive clubs. Unlike a Roman soldier in 300 B.C., I don’t need a watchword to protect my garrison from barbarian hordes. Unlike in the Prohibition Era, I don’t need a code to get into an underground speakeasy where people are singing “shibboleth” with boozy abandon.

Instead, I need complex passwords to pay the water bill and email my mom. The secret space is my own life, and the codes reside in my own faltering memory. What if, one day, I simply can’t remember “cheezeball”? Is “the cloud” going to recognize me somehow and allow me back into my virtual world? Not likely.

Luckily, there will still be a few who know me without passwords. My husband and kids will not require verification of my identity. My loyal dog will not insist on two-factor authentication.

And when I join the ultimate secret club, I doubt I’ll have to recite random numbers and letters. Passing on will be password-free. I expect it will go something like this:

“Hello, it’s me.”

“Oh, hello! Come on in.”

Featured image: Shutterstock