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Q From Nicholas Taylor, Raleigh, North Carolina: Could you please, please, please, sir, shed some light on a question that plagues my colleagues and me in the information technology world? What in the world is the correct past tense of to troubleshoot? Just how did this vexing and vaguely silly verb troubleshoot come about, anyway, and get slapped all over my noble profession and others? Did someone once go around shooting everyone who caused them trouble, inspiring others to at least verbally follow their example?

A To judge from Google, troubleshot is by a factor of about 3:1 more common than the alternative of troubleshooted. That’s very reasonable; the usual rule is that in a compound the past tense follows that of the base verb, here “shoot”. The troubleshooted version arises from people taking the verb as being a new regular weak verb.

(“Weak” here is just grammarians’ jargon for a verb that forms its past tense by adding -ed or -t to the stem, as opposed to a strong verb, which changes the vowel inside the stem, as drive changes to drove or break to broke. Strong verbs, of which there are only about 70 in the language today, are leftovers from massive changes in structure in the Middle English period. They survived because they are common. New verbs are always weak.)

The oldest form in the records is trouble-shooter from the start of the twentieth century (my earliest example, from a newspaper in Iowa, is from August 1904: “A. L. Pels, ‘trouble shooter’ for the Bell Telephone Co., visited at Geo. Dewell’s the past week.”) It seems to have been jargon of the early telephone business.

It’s based on a rather older slang sense of shoot, to discard or get rid of, of which the earliest form is to get shot of something, which dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century. An alternative version is characteristically American, of which an example from 1884 in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “If I had all the cash he takes in to-night, I’d buy an island and shoot the machine business.” It often turned up as shoot that, a mild imprecation, especially as shoot that hat!

The next step might have been to form the verb to shoot trouble in the sense of disposing of, dealing with or generally getting rid of trouble. Oddly, the records don’t show this form turning up until recently as a humorous reversal of troubleshoot. The first recorded form after trouble-shooter is trouble-shooting for the process. The verb to troubleshoot doesn’t appear until the late 1930s, which means it may have been a back-formation from trouble-shooter, the -er ending suggesting to people that there ought to be a verb to go along with it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Aug. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 27 August 2005.