glitch

To me, this word sounds like a bug meeting an abrupt demise. Or perhaps someone stepping into something they really didn’t want to. Something slippery. Ew. It has that /gl/ onset that often comes with things wet and/or shiny (like glops of glossy glue on glass), and it ends with that voiceless affricate that can be splashy or scratchy or aggressive… and there’s just a short high vowel between them. It could be a sound effect from a sci-fi movie.

We know what a glitch is, right? We use it to mean a brief error, a blip, a flaw. A bug in the program, maybe? Legend has it that bug as in computers came from a problem caused once by an insect that had worked its way into the wiring and sent everything haywire with its self-immolation. Bzz bzz bzzz glitch! But glitch doesn’t come from that.

But glitch does relate to computers and other electronic things. We generally talk of a computer glitch or a software glitch or more generally a technical glitch, or a glitch in the system. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of it is from 1962, when astronaut John Glenn defined it as “a momentary change in voltage in an electrical circuit.” Just a little flaw in the current, but one that can cause problems.

The use has broadened considerably since then, but it is still used mainly for electronics and computers and such things. Can we use it for other things? Errors and oversights? Momentary mental or editorial lapses? That might seem a bit of a stretch, especially since an error is more likely the product of a glitch rather than the glitch itself.

Say, for instance, a dictionary has a word in it for which it lists the etymology as “unknown.” Say you go to another dictionary and find the etymology traced with good probability to a word in Yiddish and German (Yiddish being a variety of German with significant Hebrew influence) – a word with a different but quite plausibly related meaning, pronounced the same and spelled nearly the same. That’s a bit of an oversight for the OED not even to make mention of that, isn’t it? Perhaps the product of a mental glitch?

Or maybe not. We don’t want to slide down that slippery slope of extending glitch too broadly.

But what is that German word that glitch likely comes from? The verb glitschen, ‘slip’, with its related adjective glitschig, ‘slippery’. My Oxford Duden German dictionary doesn’t have a noun Glitsch, but at dictionary.com I find a reference to Yiddish glitsh ‘slippery area’ or ‘slip’ (noun). We can talk in English about a little slip-up or slip of the tongue; in Yiddish that figurative extension is also possible. So a bit of Yiddish appears to have slipped into the technical jargon to refer to a little slip-up in the circuits.

Glitschen and glitsh are also related to gleiten, which is related to English glide. But aside from that, and aside from what else it sounds like, glitch does communicate suitably the sound of slipping, too, doesn’t it – perhaps on a banana peel? And maybe the sound of a circuit shorting out…

3 responses to “glitch

  1. Almost the reverse of that is “Schlitz,” perhaps the cause of a mental glitch or two.

  2. The Yiddish term may be related to Hebrew gimel-lamed-shin (to glide down) and/or to Talmudic Hebrew gimel-lamed-yod-dalet (ice) which is slippery to walk on. In Modern Hebrew, gimel-lamed-shin is the root for the verb “to ski” and the nown “a skier”. In my case, that translates to “fall down”.

  3. There’s a (relatively) new phenomenon in the art world known as “glitch art”. This week’s episode of CBC’s Spark took a quick look at it.

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