Gremlins And Glitches: Lexical Queries After HealthCare.gov

When it comes to describing problems with the Affordable Care Act website, one word has been used a lot: glitches. But does that really capture the major problems with HealthCare.gov? And where does the word come from? Ben Zimmer, executive producer of vocabulary.com and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the word's origins.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to describing problems with the Affordable Care Act website, one word has been used a lot.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now like every new law, every new product rollout, there are going to be some glitches in the signup process along the way that we will fix.

CORNISH: That's President Obama on the site's first day. But does the word glitches really capture Americans' frustrations with the site?

BEN ZIMMER: Glitch most likely comes from a Yiddish word, and the Yiddish word means a slip or a lapse.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That's Ben Zimmer, he's language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

ZIMMER: We first see it in English in the context of American radio broadcasts to describe slipups that happen on the air.

BLOCK: Slipups that happened on the air, Audie, those never happen anymore, right?

CORNISH: Never around here.

BLOCK: But somehow the word stuck around anyway.

CORNISH: Some folks consider it an acronym for gremlins lurking in the computer hardware, but Ben Zimmer says not quite.

ZIMMER: In the language business we call those backronyms because you're taking a pre-existing word and creating an acronym out of it. They're very creative, but they don't actually tell us about where the word actually comes from.

BLOCK: So while the White House can't blame mischievous little monsters for the problems with heathcare.gov, Ben Zimmer says the decision to characterize it as glitchy may have been an attempt to downplay the rough start.

ZIMMER: By calling it a glitch, it's seen as something fixable. It's not a systemic problem that is going to undermine the whole operation.

BLOCK: The administration, though, appears to have embraced the gravity of the situation, and these days talk of glitches has given way to...

OBAMA: While we're working out the kinks in the system, I want everybody to understand the nature of the problem.

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