It Was John Glenn Who Popularized the Word “Glitch”

And he got it from an unlikely, although unknown, source.

Glenn as an astronaut-in-training, in 1961. Must have been no glitches that day.

Chutzpah. Kibitz. Klutz. Maven. Schmooze. Tush. These are words derived from Yiddish that have worked their way into the American idiom. Most were introduced through entertainment—radio, television, literature—by descendants of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who found no English words adequate to describe what they were trying to express.

One word derived from Yiddish, glitch, was also introduced in radio, and found its way to the world of electrical engineering and, from there, to the hallowed halls of 1960s NASA, and thence, everywhere.

Glitch is derived from glitsh, Yiddish for slippery place, and from glitshn, meaning to slide, or glide. Glitch was in use in the 1940s by radio announcers to indicate an on-air mistake. By the 1950s, the term had migrated to television, where engineers used glitch to refer to technical problems.

Perhaps one of these engineers later joined NASA and began using glitch around a freckle-faced aviator from New Concord, Ohio: In Into Orbit, a1962 book by the Mercury Seven, John Glenn mused about the word, which he evidently hadn’t used before joining the space program. “Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was ‘glitch.’ Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit….”

We’ll never know if an engineer’s use of a Yiddish term around John Glenn is the reason we all say glitch today. But imagine if an engineer had used a different Yiddish term around him: John Glenn’s first words upon the splashdown of Friendship 7 might have been, “Oomph! That’s a jolt to the tuchus!”

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This article is a selection from the October/November issue of Air & Space magazine

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