What does ‘cruft’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: cruft…

My word-of-the-week comes from my good friend Eve Johnson. She stumbled across it twice in one day. The word, cruft, was new to me as well. It means dust that gathers under a bed, anything that poorly or shoddily constructed, bad code or accumulated physical or digital junk. She spotted it first in Seth Godin’s Sept. 13/16 column. Here is how he used it.

The purpose of sprinting without slack isn’t that you will always be sprinting, always without extra resources or a net. No, the purpose is to show you where the rocks are, to discover the cruft you can clean out. Then, sure, go back and add some surplus and resilience.

Then, later the same day, Eve found it again in a Vancouver Observer review of several Fringe Festival  performances:

Frank feeds on the leftover cruft of his host’s meals, communicates by tugging on his nose hairs and, as you might expect, misses his wife.

The origin of the term is unknown, but according to Wikipedia, it may come from Harvard University’s Cruft Laboratory (pictured above.) For some years, unused technical equipment could be seen stacked in front of Cruft Hall’s windows. According to students, if a place filled with useless machinery is called Cruft Hall, the machinery itself must be cruft. 

Interestingly, Eve’s discovery of the word — twice in the same day — led her to experience some surprise at the coincidence. This is because of the recency effect, a cognitive bias that exaggerates the importance of recent stimuli or observations. There’s even a name for this type of coincidence, developed in 1995, in a discussion thread on the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Participants were discussing the sensation of uncanny coincidences, and, disturbed by the absence of a term for it, suggested calling it the “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” — the name of an historic German urban guerrilla group. This was presumably based on that person’s experience of having recently heard that unusual term twice in close proximity.