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From Yiddish to Outer Space: On the Origins of One Mysterious Word

What’s in a glitch? You’d be surprised.

Avi Shafran
July 02, 2018

Glitches, glitches everywhere.

Just last week, a Wall Street Journal headline read: “Cruise Control Glitch Makes Fiat Chrysler No. 1 in Recalls.” Apparently, an “unlikely sequence of events” could prevent a driver from cancelling cruise control. Don’t you just hate those unlikely sequences of events?

Another story last week, elsewhere, ran under the words, “British Airways cancels 2000 cheap tickets due to glitch,” and told of the airline’s website mistakenly advertising flights to Tel Aviv and Dubai for as little as £1 ($1.92) plus taxes.

And then there was Rhode Islander Alicia White, who found out that photos of her and her fiancé stored in her iPhone account had appeared on a Connecticut-based stranger’s phone. The problem? You guessed it: “A smartphone glitch.”

The Canadian Oxford dictionary lists “glitch” as a 20th-century word “of unknown origin.” But what do Canadians know, anyway? They are “weak and dishonest” and also “burned down the White House.” The president said so!

But according to most American dictionaries, which have been made great again, “glitch” most likely migrated into English from … yes, Yiddish.

The precise noun was never employed in normal Yiddish usage, but it seems to have been born of a Yiddish verb, glitchn, “to slide or skid,” and its adjectival form glitchig, “slippery.” Yiddish borrowed the word from German.

Slippery things include glass, glide, glaze and gloss, all of which may well be related to the German ancestor of “glitch.”

Michael Wex, of Born to Kvetch fame, offers, as usage example, the sentence: Ich hob zich a glitch getohn, literally, “I did myself a slip,” or more succinctly, “I slipped.”

He also reports that Yiddish-speaking children in Eastern Europe were particularly fond of a snowy hill sledding move called the Vayoymer Dovid glitch or the “And [King] David Said slide.” That, from the intrepid sledder’s covering his face with his arm as he launched himself down the hill. A Jew reciting the Tachanun prayer, which begins with “And David said …,” traditionally puts his head down onto his arm. Those Eastern European Yiddish-speaking kids, quite a creative bunch.

Back to glitch, though. My own phone, unlike Ms. White’s, is an Android, and, while not prone to glitches, does happen to be quite glitchig, readily slipping from my hand, which is why it now lives in its rubberized case.

The etymological evolution from glitchig to glitch would presumably have begun with the image of someone slipping and ending up on an icy street or highly-polished floor, surely an unexpected and unhappy turn of events, a glitch, in other words, in one’s plans. Think “slipup.”

And from there, the word entered the worlds of astronauts, then computer geeks and then common folk, including headline writers.

Astronauts? Glad you asked. On July 23, 1965, Time magazine introduced the word to its readers with the following sentence: “Glitches–a spaceman’s word for irritating disturbances.” Precisely which spaceman was familiar with Yiddish was unrevealed. (John Glenn? Who knew?)

In case you were wondering, “galoshes,” which help keep one from slipping, seems to be from a different etymological planet altogether, the Late Latin gallica solea, or “Gallic sandal.”

Glitchig’s offspring also include some rarified words. If you’re a musician, you might recognize the relationship in the word “glissando,” a “gliding” effect (as when sliding one’s finger across adjacent piano keys); and if you’re a ballet dancer, in the word “glissade,” a step in which one slides one’s foot gracefully across the floor. If you’re neither, you might think I’m making all this up. I’m not, I promise.

There were to be several more paragraphs here, but they inexplicably disappeared from my screen. Must have been some… gremlin.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at

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