Where Did the Word “Troubleshoot” Come From?
Brain Candy

Where Did the Word “Troubleshoot” Come From?

Before you can fix something, you have to troubleshoot so you can figure out what’s causing the issue. But why do we use the word “troubleshoot?” And where did that word even come from?

Troubleshooting almost sounds like a slang word, yet it’s used as an official, technical term in almost all user manuals. Merriam-Webster defines a troubleshooter as “a skilled worker employed to locate trouble and make repairs in machinery and technical equipment.” Or more generally, “a person skilled at solving or anticipating problems or difficulties.”

Troubleshooting a broken internet router.

We would argue that you don’t necessarily have to be “skilled” at solving an issue—even if it’s something extremely basic, like rebooting your router, we think you count as a troubleshooter!

But troubleshooting originally had a much different meaning in the days when telephone lines were the hot new thing.

While it’s easy to assume that troubleshoot simply just means “to shoot trouble,” it isn’t meant literally, at least not anymore—one Wikipedia editor argues that back during the days when railroads, telegraph lines, and telephone lines were being built across the United States, companies would hire vigilantes to guard the construction zone and shoot anyone sneaking in and causing trouble. Thus, the literal term “trouble shooter” was born.

After construction was completed, “trouble shooter” began to take the form we’re familiar with today, and was used to describe any worker who diagnosed issues with a telegraph or telephone line and found a way to fix or work around the issue.

"Troublemen" mentioned in an 1891 book about telephonists.

Other forms of the word were used, as well. Going through old texts we saw “trouble hunting/hunter” and “troublemen” (no relation to Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man album). The former we found in a book entitled Practical Information for Telephonists from 1891. “Troublemen” is used in a 1904 volume of Telephony: The American Telephone Journal. Both words described those who were called out to fix issues with telephone lines. Additionally, a 1911 edition of The Signal Engineer uses “trouble shooter” and “trouble hunter” interchangeably.

Today, a troubleshooter can still be someone who fixes telephone lines, but it’s mostly used as a general term for anyone who diagnoses and fixes any kind of issue, whether it’s a problem with your kitchen mixer, your car, or your laptop. So if you’re successful with diagnosing a problem, consider yourself an official troubleshooter!