[ Issue 37 ]

The word 'bug' fascinate(s) Emily Bronto

Permit Bikwil to acquaint you with the fascination of 'bug'


In this article, the self-made legal eagle and computer expert Harlish Goop begins discoursing on the word bug and ends up quoting from Rumpole of the Bailey.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


The following couple of ideas have been reported in language circles before, but seeing that some readers might not have come in contact with them they are worth mentioning in this column.

First, let’s look at the phrase computer bug.

In Issue 11 (January 1999) Tony Rogers wrote a piece (Programming with Grace) in praise of computer pioneer Grace Hopper. Apart from being the driving force behind the computer language COBOL, it is Hopper to whom the first documented use of the term computer bug is attributed. Part of the Bikwil Hopper article reads as follows:

It was while working at Harvard that Grace Hopper is said to have coined the term “bug” for a computer fault. The bug she discovered was a moth which had caused a hardware error and which she duly pasted in the project logbook.

Now, strictly speaking, it wasn’t Hopper herself who found the moth; it was a technician who uncovered it between the contacts of an electromechanical relay.
More interesting, though, for us word explorers is this: notwithstanding the powerful nature of computing mythology, the word bug already had a long history in the sense of “problem”. According to the Oxford this sense of the word goes back at least to the 1880s, when Thomas Edison is quoted as using it to mean “difficulty”, implying that an imaginary insect had got inside the machinery and was causing failures.

So when Grace Hopper wrote her logbook comment sixty years later, she was actually using the word humorously, in the full knowledge that her co-workers would get the joke. I quote from the Jargon Dictionary Web site:

The text of the log entry (from September 9, 1947), reads "1545 Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found". This wording establishes that the term was already in use at the time in its current specific sense . . .

These days, of course, computers are everywhere, not just in university laboratories, and computer bugs are the objects of user derision rather than of collegial irony. For that reason, perhaps, the insider joke now is for programmers to refer to a customer-reported bug as “an undocumented feature”.

Incidentally, a bug was originally (in the 14th century) “an object of terror, usually an imaginary one”, and is thought by some to derive from a Welsh word bwg (= “hobgoblin or scarecrow”). By the 17th century, the meaning of “insect” had superseded the earlier meaning, though that sense has persisted in words like bugbear and bogyman.

Other senses include “enthusiast” — as in jitterbug — and the verbal sense of “annoy”.

Speaking of the “annoy” sense of bug brings me to the similar-looking word bugger, one of whose meanings is “nuisance”.

But despite this apparent connection, the words are in actual fact etymologically unrelated.

Still labelled “coarse” in many dictionaries, bugger has a variety of other meanings — as noun, verb and interjection. These include “sodomite”, “bloke”, “wreck” and “damn”.

That first “serious” sense is the original meaning of bugger and it has an interesting etymology. It got into English via 14th century French (bougre, from Latin Bulgarus) as the name of a sect of heretics who had come from Bulgaria in the 11th century. It later was used to describe the Albigensian heretics and even heretics in general, especially those suspected of indulging in “abominable practices”.

A derived phrase well known to Aussies and Brits is bugger-all — meaning “absolutely nothing” (1930s). I remember a classic exchange in one of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey stories that illustrates the phrase beautifully.
It went something like this:

His Honour addresses the Accused: “Do you have anything to say before I pass sentence?”

(Under his breath:) “Bugger-all, My Lord.”

(Addressing Counsel for the Prosecution:) “What did he say?”

“Ahem. He said ‘Bugger-all’, My Lord.”

“That’s strange. I could have sworn I saw his lips move.”

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