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
Now, strictly speaking, it wasn’t Hopper herself who found the moth; it
was a technician who uncovered it between the contacts of an
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
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
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meaning of “insect” had superseded the earlier meaning, though that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
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
It went something like this:
His Honour addresses the Accused: “Do you have anything to say before I
(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.”