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Speaking Air Force-fully: Defining 'kludge'

Photo courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/macwagen/13851197043/

Photo courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/macwagen/13851197043/

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

The first uniquely Air Force word that I encountered was “kludge,” and to this day, I’ve never heard it spoken by anyone outside of the Air Force.  Awkward, guttural and inelegant, it was especially notable because I could not, for the life of me, figure out what it meant. 

The answer seemed obvious when, at a meeting, a senior AF officer described “kludging” some information, and indicated this by weaving his fingers together. “Aha!” I thought, “It means fuse, with a side of ‘squish’.” Except, it doesn’t.  It means to work out an imperfect, but functional solution to a problem, usually related to mechanical or computer code problems. In this way, kludge is a bit onomatopoetic – a clumsy sounding word that mirrors its definition.

Good thing I’ve never adopted kludge, since I didn’t learn the real (or real-ish) definition (or spelling) until it was featured in Wordsmith.org’s A.Word.A.Day (https://wordsmith.org/words/kludge.html ). Light Internet digging leads to widely disparate suggestions for the origins of the word, such as Scottish for toilet. I wonder what about Scottish potties implies ‘imperfect engineering’?  Some sources suggest it’s from German for clever (klug) but that origin word is pronounced like “kloog”. Why then the phonetic shift?  The disparity and variety of suggested origins implies, to my anthropologist’s ear, that virtually all answers are back-dated and mythical.  Whatever its origin, this word will always remind me of my first days working for the Air Force, confusing acronyms, colorful metaphors and obscure terms flying past me, when I realized I was indeed in a new culture.  (During the writing of this piece, I came across a delightful article from The Atlantic Monthly on the possible origins of the word https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/the-appropriately-complicated-etymology-of-kluge/499433/ Per this article, we might be able to put the blame for this word at the feet of the Navy.  I’m just saying.).