22

Did somebody famous coin the term? Where does it originate from? I have it heard many times over the years. I wonder if there is a neat bit of trivia associated with the term?

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 9 at 15:19

3 Answers 3

41

I bear disappointing news: the conventional wisdom seems to be that the term arose organically among Windows users of the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s probably hopeless to establish a definite coinage of the term, and there aren’t that many anecdotes to be had about its origins, even as the origins of the crash screen itself are pretty well-established (by Microsoft engineers themselves, including Raymond Chen, John Vert and Dave Plummer).

Here’s a Google Ngram graph:

Google Ngram plot of ‘blue screen of death’, ‘Blue Screen of Death’ and ‘BSoD’

We can safely discount pre-1990 appearances as errors in the database (while searching for usages of the term on Google Books, I once found Peter Norton's Complete Guide to Windows XP from… 1997. No doubt such misdating is not an isolated incident, especially for pre-ebook era publications.)

For what it’s worth, the earliest appearance of the term Google Books returned to me was in the book PC Roadkill by Michael I. Hyman, published by IDG in 1995, on page 214:

Follow These Instructions Carefully

When Windows NT or OS/2 crash, they tend to crash with a fury, bringing up a screen full of hex numbers describing the state of the machine when it died. The background of such windows is blue, leading to the name “blue screen” or “blue screen of death.” You can use this as a verb, as in, “I blue-screened NT this morning.” While blue screens are rare, they are alarming when they occur. Usually they contain a message suggesting how to resolve the problem. One NT blue screen apparently says: “Reboot your machine. Do not reboot your machine.”

This seems to imply the author was not one to come up with the term, and is simply repeating a name he himself heard from somewhere else. I cannot say whether he was the one to popularize it either; personally, I somewhat doubt it, even as I cannot rule it out. Nevertheless, it does reveal something about the term’s origins: it shows the term was initially coined to refer to the Windows NT crash screen, even as it is Windows 9x that ultimately became more infamous for crashing at a blue screen.

13
  • 7
    The NT BSoD came before the 9x one, so it’s not all that surprising that the term was coined for NT. I’m intrigued by Hyman’s reference to OS/2 since the “BSoD” there is black, not blue... Mar 6 at 15:07
  • 1
    It happened so frequently and was so disruptive that I would guess that most users immediately agreed with the wording. Also it did not present a title so a name was needed. Mar 6 at 16:47
  • 2
    So far as I can tell from Google Books, the exact coinage "It ain't over [un]til the fat lady sings" first appeared in a medical book about the effects of oxygen deprivation, whose author attributed the quote to Yogi Berra (whose actual famous quote is "It ain't over 'til it's over"), and likely merged that quote with the earlier "The show isn't over until the fat lady sings." Some people like to refer to "the X of death", so maybe some such person referred to the blue error screen that way, and the name stuck.
    – supercat
    Mar 6 at 19:54
  • 4
    @Mark I remember it being used for both, but I think “blue” came first and “black” tagged along once the BSoD moniker became popular. But that’s just what I remember! Mar 6 at 21:21
  • 3
    @Christopher, the "of death" version of the term absolutely predates Windows XP, as the quotation presented in this answer demonstrates, and as I can attest from personal experience. FWIW, Windows XP did not blue-screen nearly as frequently as its predecessors did. Mar 8 at 1:53
29

The Jargon File suggests the term is derived from an earlier Windows crash, the Black Screen of Death. This was a lockup experienced when launching a DOS session under Windows 3.1, commonly associated with Novell networking.

The earliest use of "Black Screen of Death" found by Google Books is in the 12 April 1993 issue of InfoWorld, in Robert X Cringely's "Notes from the Field":

PC networking isn't kid stuff, either, as Microsoft continues to learn. The kids in Redmond last week finally acknowledged to me the existence of the Black Screen of Death, which affects networked PCs running Windows 3.1.

In the earlier 22 March edition, Cringely calls the phenomenon simply "Black Screen Death":

Stac is the least of Microsoft's troubles right now. There is still the hated Windows 3.1 DOS box lockup, which is known in Redmond as the "Black Screen Death".

It's likely, then, that 'Black Screen of Death' was popularised by Cringely, and he may even have been responsible for inserting the 'of'. By the end of May, it is already being used by other writers in the same magazine and abbreviated as "BSOD".

8
  • 2
    I do feel that this answer explains where the phrase "X Screen of Death" likely originated from, given that while the Blue Screen of Death is the more common type, there are other different coloured "Screens of Death" that followed, such as Windows Vista's beta build's Red Screen of Death. Mar 7 at 0:47
  • 3
    @AlexanderThe1st See also "Red Ring of Death" on the X-Box, "Red Triangle of Death" on the Toyota Prius (possibly some other hybrids? Seems to be Prius-specific from a brief search), and various other "[colored] [thing]'s of Death" on other devices... Mar 7 at 19:12
  • The term is ‘snowclone’. Mar 8 at 6:50
  • 2
    I suspect that "Black Screen Death" is just a printing error; there doesn't seem to be any evidence of it as an earlier term. "X of Death" is a much older snowclone, and the current entry in Eric Raymond's Jargon File suggests a link to "Floating Head of Death". So, while interesting, I think this give Cringely undue credit - he was clearly referencing an existing term.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 8 at 14:12
  • 1
    Correction: it looks like that suggestion of the Far Side reference has always been in the Jargon File, so it's odd that you didn't mention it. It also contains a listing for Finger of Death, with a different origin, listed as far back as the January 1991 version.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 8 at 14:18
4

This may be obvious, but the general template "X of death" is an old one inspired by terminology in, I think, comics and fantasy. Consider, for instance, the linked Far Side cartoon from 1988, in which a child's mother threatens to summon the "floating head of death."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.