Etymology and the origin of English language have always fascinated me, partly because so many of the words we use every day represent remnants of history; artefacts left behind by the Roman Empire, the Vikings and the Norman conquest. Although words relating to computers and technology are often much younger, some are just as quirky and steeped in history as those from the past.
Like a Moth to a Flame
The origin of the word ‘bug’ in the computing world is often mistakenly credited to computer scientist Grace Hopper. The story goes that while working on the Harvard Mark II computer in 1947 she discovered a dead moth stuck in a relay. It was removed and taped into a logbook where she wrote “First actual case of a bug being found” (see picture below), which suggests that the term was already in use at that time.
While this might have been the first literal case of ‘debugging’, there is evidence that ‘bug’ had been used in engineering for many years before that.
Scarecrows, Bugs and Bogeys
The most accepted origin of ‘bug’ is the Middle English word ‘bugge’ or ‘bogge’ (n.), which meant a scarecrow or a scary thing. One of the first iterations of the word came in John Wycliffe’s English translation of the bible (circa 1320-1382): “As a bugge either a man of raggis in a place where gourdis wexen kepith no thing, so ben her goddis of tree.” (As a scarecrow or a man of rags in a place where gourds grow guards nothing, so are their gods of wood.)
As language evolved, another off-shoot of ‘bugge’, the scarecrow, was ‘bogey’, an evil or mischievous spirit. This gave rise to a family of other ghost and hobgoblin names including ‘bogeyman’, ‘boggart’, ‘bogle’ and ‘bugaboo’. While the archaic form of ‘bugbear’ is also another hobgoblin figure. In general these all have the same negative connotation of things to avoid and that cause fear or irritation. The direct descendant of these words is ‘bogey’ which still survives today in modern English, in aviation where a ‘bogey’ is an enemy aircraft, in golf where a ‘bogey’ is one over par (a bad score) and a ‘bogey’ (UK) or ‘booger’ (US) is a piece of nasal mucus.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the word ‘bug’ no longer meant scarecrow and had come to mean ‘insect’, which makes sense as many people consider them to be alien and scary. The earliest references to ‘bugs’ meaning insects often related to ‘bedbugs’, supposedly because when someone woke up covered in bedbug bites, it was as if they had been visited by something scary during the night.
Thomas Edison’s Bugs
By the 1870s, the meaning of bug had changed once more and perhaps made its first appearance in technology when American inventor Thomas Edison referred to what he called a ‘bug’ while developing a quadruplex telegraph system in 1873. He also mentioned ‘bugs’ in a letter to an associate:
“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.”
They were mentioned once again in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1889:
“Mr. Edison, I was informed, had been up the two previous nights discovering ‘a bug’ in his phonograph – an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”
Another early example of ‘bugs’ being used to refer to technology was with the release of the first mechanical pinball machine, Baffle Ball, which was created by David Gottlieb in 1931. It was advertised with the strap-line “No bugs in this game!” (see poster below):
So it seems fair to assume that the word ‘bug’ came from ‘bugge’, the Middle English for scarecrow, which led to ‘bogey’ and all the similar words meaning an obstacle, a source of dread or something to be feared. In modern times the word ‘bug’ has become a verb meaning to vex or irritate, while the noun form has become a synonym for disease-causing germs, crazily enthusiastic or obsessive people (e.g. a firebug is a pyromaniac), concealed recording devices used by spies and perhaps, thanks to Edison, an error in technology.