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?
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:
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.
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".
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."