Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Insect Spray Won't Help With Y2K Bug

I don't know about you, but all of this Y2K bug talk is beginning to get on my nerves.  Actually it's starting to bug me!  To begin with, there is really not much I can do about the situation.  Furthermore, the problem is not a bug at all - at least not a bug of the insect variety.

All of us who study insects realize that most people don't like these six-legged creatures.  After all, some species of insects make pests of themselves by feeding on our plants, animals, possessions and even us.  So for most of us, it's hard to dredge up much appreciation for something that just seems to be a problem.

This talk about the Y2K bug only makes matters worse.  Now folks are thinking "Not only do bugs get on my roses and dog, but they're chewing away at computers.”  Visions of incorrect banking statements, crashed airplanes and failed retirement plans are being blamed on "the bug!”

To be sure, computer glitches could cause all of  these things, but let me assure you it wouldn't be the work of insects.  You see, in United States slang, a bug is a defect in apparatus or its operation.  So, dubbing this computer software problem a bug doesn't mean insect related.

But the computer bug does have a tie to insects.  And that, as Paul Harvey is known to say, is "the rest of the story.”  During the early years of development, computers were masses of wires soldered together and arrayed on boards.  One such machine abruptly stopped working in a U.S. Navy laboratory.  Crashed as we say today.

So the early computer geeks disassembled the machine and discovered the problem.  A moth had gotten into the machine and committed suicide across some of the wires of the circuitry.  Once the carcass of the offending moth was removed, the computer functioned normally.  Henceforth, the computer geeks began referring to process of correcting a malfunctioning computer as "de-bugging.”

Of course, moths are not technically bugs so the lack of entomological savvy on the part of the early computer folks has strapped us with an incorrect term.  To scientific purists, de-insect or de-moth would be accurate and just as descriptive.

But on the other hand, the term "bug” does have merits for this purpose. For instance, we also use the term "bug” as slang for a microorganism that causes a disease, as in flu bug.  So a sick computer could be affected by such a bug.

The historical use of the term bug does make it an appropriate term for describing computer problems.  The English term bug is based on the Welsh word "bwg,” which meant ghost or spirit of the night.  It was first used in connection with insects to describe the "bed bug.”  The bed bug is well known to be reclusive, coming out of hiding at night to feed on its human hosts.  Since early people didn't see the insect they presumed it to be a ghost.

The term "bwg”  is the basis for the word buggy.  Someone who is "possessed by spirits or ghosts” is said to be buggy.   Now we're getting somewhere.

That is how I perceive my computer when it doesn't work.  There have to be spirits, gremlins or ghosts in there somewhere fouling up the works.  Because when the "computer geek” comes to debug my machine, he seems to get it working without ever finding a singed moth - or any other insect culprit for that matter!

Now, if I can just get this column saved without disturbing any of those sleeping bugs, Y2K or otherwise, in my computer!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann