cruft

Merry cruftmas!

Just admit it: December is the most cruft-full time of the year. It’s not just that almost everything you get or give comes with a box (or perhaps two or three), packing and padding material, twist-ties, peel-off sticky items, and possibly a pretty bag you brought it all home in. It’s that you end up with all sorts of stuff you don’t need and won’t use more than three times, and so does everyone else. In our society, a sign of a long life fully lived is closets and shelves and cabinets and even whole basements and garages full of cruft. 

But… no, don’t Konmari my cruft! The mere possession of hundreds of books, scores of electronic devices, and collected toys such as my two dozen cameras and three dozen lenses brings a spark of joy. Well, to some of us, anyway.

And hey, my cameras aren’t cruft – I still use all of them, each one at least once a year. Anything that actually gets used doesn’t count. Cruft is accumulated detritus. Schmutz. Leftover crap that you just haven’t been motivated to clean out. Computer programmers use the term for obsolete and otiose lines of code left over in a program from earlier versions. People working in labs and offices might consider cruft to be all the old equipment that has been disused and is stacked off to the side – in some cases, in windows where people can see it. 

I think most of us have walked past a nice-looking building and seen a window that is filled with basic piled-up cruft. It’s possible that that’s even where the word cruft comes from: at Harvard University, there is a Cruft Laboratory, which for a long time had assorted detritus piled in its windows and visible from the street; it’s not impossible that it was seen by students from nearby MIT, where the word cruft is first known to have emerged in 1959 (specifically at the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, which was also an early wellspring of computer programmers and hackers – in fact, hack and hacker in the computer sense are also among the words the club has given us).

It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly not certain. Cruft Laboratory isn’t an exceptionally prominent building among the accumulation of red brick that is Harvard’s core campus. And MIT is a mile and a half farther east, in its own distinct neighbourhood. Other theories of its origin have it as a fanciful formation on the basis of crud, fluff, and crust. My favourite theory – not any more supported than any of the others, but not really less likely, in my opinion – is one I read somewhere (I can’t remember where!) that it is a deliberate play on the effect of a bit of orthographical cruft: the long s.

The long s? You know, when you read old books and, for lower-case s in nearly all positions except final, they use ſ(which, not italicized, is ſ). As in buſineſs (buſineſs) rather than business. So when you see the word crust in such an old book, it’s cruſt. And certainly nerds and geeks do look at old books on occasion, and see things that amuse them, and repurpose them for ſhits and giggles, just as they may do with many another bit of cruft, as suits them. I do fancy the idea that the word might bear the trace of orthographic cruft, especially since English has so very much of the stuff (silent letters, obsolete but retained spellings, redundancies…). But I cannot say it’s true.

One way or another, the word has a certain something to its sound, crunchy but soft, sort of like the sound of sorting through or sweeping up dusty papers and other crap. It does have other overtones too, though. Notably, Crufts is the name of a famous dog show. It was founded by Charles Cruft, one of many people who have had that as a family name – another being Harriet Otis Cruft, of Boston, who donated Cruft Laboratory to Harvard in memory of her four brothers, all Harvard graduates. (Meanwhile, a mile and a half north of that, there is a whole university named after Charles Tufts, a university I happen to have two degrees from, but Tufts is not Cruft; whether my degrees are cruft is not for me to judge.)

Cruft remains a strong hacker-toned word, a word seldom heard outside of nerd and geek culture. But that ought to change. Cruft is a pervasive, even ubiquitous fact of life, and even from the earliest ages, before we have programmed our first line of code, we are taking part in arts and crufts. Go into any kindergarten and ſee for yourſelf.

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