The Coining (and Debugging) of the Word Debug

Grace Hopper SI Neg. 83-14878. Date: na. Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

When your computer has a defect, you call it a bug. Fix the problem, and you’ve debugged it. How did these terms come about? Legend has it that on September 9, 1945—70 years ago today—Rear Admiral Grace Hopper of the U.S. Navy, one of the world’s first computer scientists, peeked inside a malfunctioning calculator and, quite literally, pulled out a bug (a moth, to be exact), thereby giving bug and debug new meanings for the computer age.

There’s only one problem with this oft-told tale: It’s got an enormous bug in it.

There are oodles of pseudoetymologies in the English language.

The Navy introduced its MKII Aiken Relay Calculator in 1947, but the words bug and debug had borne engineering connotations since the late 19th century. Witness Thomas Edison, so-called father of modern technology, as he explains the expression in an 1878 letter to Hungarian inventor Theodore Puskás:

It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an 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.

Some trace bug all the way back to the Middle English word bugge, meaning hobgoblin or gremlin—like the one hiding in your machine and causing it to malfunction. The Grace Hopper tale, however fun to retell, is a pseudoetymology (yes, that’s a real word—but please ask someone else where it comes from), a popular but false word origin story. There are oodles of pseudoetymologies in the English language, and we’ve compiled a few, some of which are buggier than others.

crap [n.] – 1. something of extremely poor quality; rubbish. 2. excrement.

Thomas Crapper was an English plumber, popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. His name was stamped on all its devices, and when American servicemen in World War I went to the latrine, they said, “I’m goin’ to the crapper.” Or so the legend goes. Actually, crap comes from the Old French crappe, meaning waste. Although Crapper did help develop the ballcock apparatus, he did not invent the flush toilet—and the story about WWI servicemen is just a load of you-know-what.

nasty [adj.] – 1. highly unpleasant; repugnant. 2. unpleasant or spiteful in behavior.

Thomas Nast was notorious for tearing apart politicians with his political cartoons. His vitriolic caricatures, according to popular myth, were therefore described as nasty, and the word caught on. But this one, too, is fit for the crapper. Nasty derives from the Dutch word nestig, meaning dirty.

Thomas Nast reprised his favorite subject, Boss Tweed, eight years after his death in prison. As a diamond studded convict, Tweed's spirit of corruption still dominated New York City politics. 1886 cartoon.
Thomas Nast reprises his favorite subject, Boss Tweed, eight years after the politician’s death in prison.
Photo courtesy of Everett

That’s not to say Nast didn’t have a nasty style. His cartoons of Boss Tweed, the corrupt Democratic Party leader, were so venomous that they helped bring down Tweed and his shady ring of conspirators. In one cartoon, Nast depicts Tweed with a moneybag for a head, with the caption The “Brains”; in another, Tweed is a vulture hovering over a canyon, atop the caption Let us prey. Truth be told, today’s political cartoons could probably use a little more nast.

rule of thumb [phr.] – guide or principle.

According to legend, Medieval England had this law on the books about domestic abuse: If a man beats his wife, he mustn’t use a stick larger than his thumb. In the 1999 crime film Boondock Saints when a woman tells this apocryphal tale, her colleague replies, “Well, can’t do much damage with that then, can we? Perhaps it should have been a rule of wrist.”

In fact, no such law ever existed in England, or anywhere else. Rule of thumb derives from an old tailoring practice of using the thumb as an approximate unit of measurement. The conversion rate went like so: Twice the circumference of the thumb is the circumference of the wrist; twice the circumference of the wrist is the circumference of the neck; twice the neck is the waist. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians use the same method for tailoring Gulliver’s clothes:

Then they measured my right thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical computation, that twice round the thumb is once round the wrist, and so on to the neck and the waist…

As for Lilliput’s restrictions on the size of a beating stick, a good rule of thumb is not to use Gulliver’s.

Photo of Grace Hopper courtesy of Wikimedia