back to article The 'blem wit' error messages

When I was young I built up a collection of system error messages. Ok, look, it's not as sad as collecting stamps! It is? Really? Oh well, never mind. Anyway, my recent piece about Borland putting rude words in Quattro Pro got me thinking it was time to revisit that collection. Some of them date back to the days of the …


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  1. Jeremy

    The memory is hazy...

    ...but under certain circumstances, didn't Windows 98 used to come up with this example of error message brilliance from time to time?

  2. Karl Dane

    Printer on fire?

    I learned my favourite error message when I first started messing around with linux (about 12 years ago now, I guess.)

    I was trying to use my linux box to act as a networked printer server for my parallel port epson. However, the first time it ran out of ink, the lpr daemon reported:

    "Unknown error. (Printer on fire?)"

    You should have seen the speed with which I ran across the room to ensure this wasn't the case.


  3. Graham Dawson Silver badge

    Terse and impenetrable, sure...

    But not exactly creative. My favourite still remains Commodore's "Guru Meditation Error". It was very zen.

    Tux, because the other day I actually was able to read a kernel panic and understand why it was panicking.

  4. David Mery


    My favourite from Multics Emacs...

    br -d

  5. Ray Simard


    So very fortunately, those days of constricted memory and disk storage are far behind us. I have not see messages like these:

    "Failed to open file" (or any of numerous equally uninformative variants)

    "The parameter is incorrect"

    "Your socks don't match"

    since, oh, last Saturday, though in all honesty, that may be because I wasn't doing anything here yesterday.

  6. Herby

    Apple's "Bombs"...

    The handler was called "Dire Straights" because it had the same initials as the "original meaning". It was used in the 68k versions of their operating system (two CPUs ago). I don't know if it has been carried over, but...

    On another front, the ROM monitor of a machine I have (before I changed the ROM image) had the error message "WTF?" which was emitted when it couldn't understand the console entry. The official explanation was "With Trace Flag" (and I have some swamp land to sell!).

    IBMs error messages from the OS/360 era usually had a nice 6 character message number (prefix indicated which program, the other stuff told what). They had an entire book of error messages. It was before the idea of "internationalization" took over (it was the 60's).

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    My brother did get the classic "Drive C is full. Please Insert another Disk and Try again"

    With only an OK button.

    And "blem wit" of course is matched by the completely empty windows dialogue box with just an exclamation mark in it and an OK button

  8. Morely Dotes
    Thumb Up

    My very favorite ever

    My wife is a (now-retired) banker. The mainframe system at the little bank where she worked in Texas had very, very good input verification, but once in a while someone would enter something from which it simply couldn't make any sense. When that happened, the message returned was:

    Input respectfully ignored.

  9. John Carney


    For terseness nothing beats the TRS-80 error messages, which consisted of: "What?", "How?" and "Sorry".

  10. Unix Andy

    Positively verbose - now in my day

    No discussion of cryptic error messages is complete without at least mentioning ed - the forerunner to the Unix vi editor.

    Any error on iput generated the one true universal and cryptic error message namely


  11. Kurt Guntheroth

    evacuate now?

    Yeah, I admit it, I'm the kind of guy who runs strings(1) on an executable file. So when I ran strings on FrameMaker.exe way back in the mid-'80's on Sun's BSD Unix, mixed in with the other error messages was my very favorite one. I don't know what extremely desparate and unrecoverable situation evoked this message, but the text was

    "Evacuate now, in our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances."

  12. Enno

    obligatory joke...

    Remember that old joke: "If Ken Thompson designed a car it would have just one light on the dashboard which would light when there was a problem. The experienced motorist would know what the problem was". Yes the early UNIXen had to squeeze down into an early PDP-11's memory space (64k code and 64k data?).

  13. JakeyC

    Some gems...

    ...from Excel VBA:

  14. Ade

    Recursive errors

    A colleague of mine was at pains to use a Windows box to build some software we were working on. We had to test audio playback but the card in the machine hadn't been installed properly. So he installed the audio drivers and restarted Windows, and on boot-up, there was a problem and the driver could only play the first tiny fragment of the Windows startup sound, which was cut short and followed by an error message dialog saying the sound driver couldn't play the sound.

    The funny bit was that this error message dialog was accompanied by the Windows alert sound (alert.wav), which was similarly truncated, and resulted in a second error message dialog, triggering another truncated alert.wav, and another error message dialog, etc... etc...

    Most amused by this, we left the poor Windows box filling the screen with error dialog boxes and went for a long lunch.

  15. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    And on the old Cyber we had..

    Task not in system

    as favourite error message. Given th e"Local" (to your TERMINAL) status of every file you edited, which you then first had to save AND make permanent, any jitter on the line could easily wipe out an hours work EVEN if you saved stuff. This frequently caused th efollowing dialogue

    $ F**K YOU

    Task not in system


  16. Someone

    ofla ofla

  17. Steve

    Cars do it too

    In these chilly mornings my wife (a usability designer) is amused by the screen on her car radio which pops up a picture of a snowflake and the text "3°C Warning Icy Road" with only an "OK" button. It certainly isn't OK, but what can she do?

    I'm surprised no-one's mentioned

    "No keyboard found. Press F1 to continue" yet...

  18. Chris

    Best I saw personally..

    ..was after I broke (for the 10th time) my xorg install on Linux. It crashed, and before the compute rebooted and after a bunch of kernel stuff it said "Serious error. Uhh, your system is seriously misconfigured."

    It was then I decided to reinstall..

  19. Anonymous Coward

    errors in error

    this one can be found Windows v1

    Press any key to continue or any other key to quit.

  20. Alistair Stewart

    cat flap

    Solaris has my favourite error message for cat:

    $ cat flap

    error: cat can't open flap


  21. Jon Axtell

    Not terse!

    A certain genealogy program I use has the opposite of a terse error message!

    "Find in Diagram" does nothing when you are viewing a diagram. To use it, switch to another window, but without actually closing the Diagram Window. Select a record in the other window and click on "Find in Diagram". You will be switched back to the Diagram Window, and the selected record will be located (if it exists in the diagram).

    Pheeeeewooh! Oh, and there is only an OK button, and when you click the OK button all those nice instructions disappear so you better have a good memory!

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    BBC Micro

    >RENUMBER 10,0


  23. Tom

    I've seen some odd ones

    But "Keyboard Bad, Press F1 to Continue" is still a classic.

  24. Fozzy


    For me the best was the Amiga

    "Guru Mediation Error"

    I always pictured an overweight monk deep in mediation suddenly farting.

  25. Martin Kirk

    Wandering wild creatures

    My personal favourite, produced by a compiler for a language that allowed type definition:

    "Integer expected, but rabbit found."

  26. Anonymous Coward

    My favorite from an old version of Linux...

    I think it was when you tried to login to the "Nobody" system account like it was a normal user account: "You don't exist. Go away."

  27. IDK

    IBM software

    Still see on the rare occasions out of Tivoli products (with no return or error codes)...

    "Something has gone wrong"

    "An error has occurred"

    Always useful when trying to see what's happened.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    A pair from NT

    Over the course of time, I came across two separate Event Log entries whose description consisted of the explanation:

    Error formatting error message.

    Never did find out what the original errors had to do with.


  29. vincent himpe

    my favorite

    On apollo Workstations when dealing with the tape drive :

    - unit will not fit thru 25" hatch

    they dried selling these drives to the navy for use on submarines. Contract was turned down because they were too big to go throught the entrance hatch of the submarine. They would have had to cut a hole in the hull ( might as well have installed that screendoor in the mean time ... ). Someone coded this as a permanent error in the tapemanager ...

    My other favorite thing is an HP54645D oscilloscope ( i am using on right now ) Hit Print/Utility. the bottom menu ( the softkey functions ) will show sofkeys 2,3 and 4 as blank.

    Hit 3 &4 to see a nice vector drawing of a badger ( no it's NOT a skunk !!! ) and a namelist of the coders of the scopes firmware.

    and if you hit softkey 2 and 3 you can play a kind of space wars .

    If you have installed the latest firmware to be able to use extension packs these features are lost. You get the nice message : Sorry There was not enough space in the ROM.

    Another cool one is a TEK 2245 oscilloscope. if you browse the built in help and actually read the entry on how to use the help on the functions controls, at the very last page there is this line :

    Go ahead Push a button, make my day ...

    go to for tons more of these hidden and funny items

  30. Stewart Rice


    My personal Top 3 error messages would have to be (in no particular order):

    "Error contacting Real Networks Technical Support. Please contact Real Networks Technical Support for more information." (or something to that effect) when using RealPlayer (before it became RealOne, I believe) without an internet connection.

    "Amnesia Error: Out of Memory" Self explanatory error from Jazz Jackrabbit 1 & 2 by Epic (then Epic MegaGames)

    And the fully fictional error from the Halo 2 video game:


    A total FU exception has occured at your location. All system functionality will be terminated.

    Press any key to power cycle the system. If system does not restart; scream at top of lungs and pound on keyboard.

    If you need to talk to a programmer press any other key.

    Press any key to continue."

    There is a point in the game where you must use a computer console to open a door. Continuing to use the console after the door has been opened results in the screen turning blue and displaying the message above.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Re: The memory is hazy

    My Dell Inspiron D810 running Windows XP SP2 produces the same error message: When running on the battery and the battery power level is low, the computer is supposed to produce a warning message. Instead, it immediately hibernates (presumably because the battery is poked). When I restore mains power, you can see the no-text message sitting in front of the login window.

    I recall that in the early versions (6.0?) of the Mac OS that ran on laptops, there was a dialog that was supposed to display when battery power ran low. The text for the message was held in a resource, which often wasn't in memory when the message had to be displayed. So in order to display the message, the hard drive would have to spin up, which would completely drain the battery of any remaining juice...

    Something similar I guess.

    Paris Hilton icon, because I haven't used her yet, which probably puts me in a small minority...

  32. John Gray

    Can't be denied!

    Although not strictly speaking an error message, I loved the information message issued by IBM's mainframe error-reporting program EREP:

    "History in progress..."

  33. A Lewis

    VAX VMS...

    ...had the delta debugger. With this utility you could patch the contents of RAM of a running system - by specifying hex addresses and values. Given the potential for disastrous consequences, this was not a tool for the novice. Perhaps for this reason it had no command prompt and only one error message - "eh?"

  34. John Angelico


    John Carney,

    if those errors had been in a TSR, could they be described as a trs TRS TSR err?

  35. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

    Gather round children, while the old man reminisces...

    Many years ago, sometime in the last millennium, we had a Burroughs patient result system which we used for research. The search language was called TCP (Test Control Protocol) and it was made up of very primitive commands (Move pointer, compare result, advance record, that sort of thing. Stuff you'd do now with SELECT * FROM MyTable WHERE Surname LIKE "Smit%" took hours to code!)

    Every move or search command required two destinations - it jumped to the first if the search/move succeeded, and the other if it failed. Just about the first instruction in every search program "Go to start of database" - I can't remember the syntax, but we knew the ref number of the oldest specimen in the database, and coded it in. Now, that jump couldn't fail, but the syntax demanded a fail destination, so I coded one in.

    About eight years went by, and the database grew (we worked out later) to a size which meant the compiler needed to be told to use a bigger data type to handle addresses - but we didn't realise that until one day when the computer couldn't make the jump to lightspeed - sorry, to the first record. And a rather confused lab tech brought me the sheet from the lineprinter: UNKNOWN AND UNFORSEEN ERROR. SPOOKY, ISN'T IT?

  36. Neil Greatorex


    When the C: drive is full, attempting to delete stuff gives the brilliant error:

    Error: Insufficient space to delete files, delete some files and try again.


  37. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    Think (Net)Positive

    There are lots of good error messages around - TeX has some doozies - but nothing as elegant as the haiku ones in NetPositive, the BeOS browser. Howaboutthis, for server timeout:

    Server's poor response

    Not quick enough for browser.

    Timed out, plum blossom.

  38. Juillen
    Black Helicopters

    The most perplexing..

    For me was a terminal app I used to use on Win'95 back in its early days.

    Occasionally, it would just terminate the connection, and lock solid until you pressed the "OK" button (the only button) on the dialog box that read "Error: No error has been detected.".

    It would then terminate.

  39. Phil A

    Not quite an error message...

    ...but we once managed to ship some code that had a message box "Haven't written this bit yet"

  40. TeeCee Gold badge

    Personal favourite.

    From a previous existance and left for our entertainment by a programmer who had long since left the company concerned.

    Green-screen app with what can only be described as a shed-load of input capable fields on the particular screen in question. All are validated against reference data and each other and any in error are highlighted and some nice scrolly messages appear at the bottom of the screen telling you about all the errors.

    One day a new user calls saying that her screen is locked out, we ask what she was using and swear (offline) when she tells us. The particular screen in question had a few sensitive things open for update. So, fact-finding time:

    "What's the screen number?"

    "It hasn't got one."

    "No, look in the top left corner of the screen, there's a screen number."

    "No there isn't."

    Hmmmm, strange.

    "What does it say on the screen?"

    ".......I'd rather not say."

    Hmmmmm, very strange. A quick look at the user's job reveals a screen display member that we don't immediately recognise. Do we a) pull the source to see what it looks like or b) exit, en masse, to the user's desk to see what's up? b) wins out and off we go.

    Turn out that the new user has managed to get every single field invalid in some way or another and a long-unused error routine has creaked into life. There, on the screen, with all the keys disabled, resplendant in HUGE block letters lovingly constructed out of individual spaces displayed inverse, highlighted and blinking is one word:


  41. Richard Bos

    Internationalisation proven harmful

    My favourite was not in English, but in Dutch. When some DOS versions of Norton Commander got given a floppy they couldn't read, they said something like "Floppy in drive a: kan niet geformatteerd worden", /Anglico/ "Floppy in drive a: can not be formatted". This resulted in quite a bit of concern when we tried to read a floppy containing important data in a certain computer with a wonky a: drive, and had certainly not asked for it to be formatted in the first place... until it hit me that some bozo translator with no experience with the program and an unannotated list of messages had chosen the wrong interpretation of "Floppy in drive a: _may_ not be formatted".

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Drive C:

    I remember in the early days of Demon Internet, when we were all using DOS and slow dialup connections, someone posted "I've just had the error 'Drive C: out of paper', what do I do?" There were several responses saying "Put paper in drive C: of course".

    The actual reason was that DOS had a common error handler, and one bit was used to indicate whether the fault was in a drive or a peripheral. Sometimes this got confused, so an actual sector read error on a drive would trigger the equivalent peripheral error message instead.

    (I actually wrote an application which said "Press any key to continue or ESC to exit". It made sense to me at the time, my cow-orkers found it amusing...)

    My favourite error message which never existed, also from MSDOS days, was "ERROR CLOSING LEVI.ZIP: REMOVE FLOPPY AND RETRY".

  43. Neil
    Gates Horns

    Not enough disk space...

    My favourite on Win 2000:

    Error deleting file or folder - there is not enough free disk space.

    Delete one or more files to free disk space, and then try again.

  44. Mark Rendle

    Unhelpful in all languages

    I suspect the reason that the messages such as "Cannot find DLL" are not more informative is that the string comes from a localized resource file. I'm working on a framework at the moment, and I'm trying to put in variable substitution markers in the string resources where appropriate, so the exception messages can have useful data included, but it's a PITA and I can see why people don't bother.

  45. Mats Koraeus

    Personal favourite

    While not as advanced as many others, my favourite error still had an air of accomplishment and being special about it.

    Back in the days when creating Doom mods using DeHackEd, if you really messed things up, the game loader would halt half-way through and output

    "Professional error. Game halted."

    Iow: you messed up, but at least you did it like a pro ;D

  46. The Other Steve
    Gates Horns

    Personal 'favourite'

    Many moons ago I was working on a now happily defunct public sector financial management app when we we began to get reports of the following (fatal) error from windows 95/98. "Unknown error 5000001".

    WTF ?

    If it's unknown, how the fsck does it have a number ? What are the other 5000000 'unknown' errors ???

    This was of course our brutal introduction to the hideous painful world known as DLL Hell.

    From the other side, I often use fairly humorous error messages in code I've worked on, many times including the word "b0rk". If the user is looking at an error message, the least you can do is try to stimulate their sense of humour before they pick up the phone.

  47. John Mangan

    Fondly (if hazily) remembered .

    I did once receive an error message from a Windows server along the lines of "The server is unwilling to service your request at this time".

    I was torn between fear for the future of humanity as the machines rose to power and hope because the server was not ruling out that it would be willing to help me at some future time.

  48. Nick Wallis


    A colleague of mine got in serious trouble when one of his Pratchett-esque error messages flashed up on a customer screen:

    "Out of cheese error"

    Though there is at least one system out there that suggests that people "Eat More Lard".

  49. Anonymous Coward

    The butler did it

    My first attempts to really muck around with Linux came to grief with the following message which required a reinstall to get past:

    "According to /var/run/, gdm was already running (616), but seems to have been murdered mysteriously."

  50. Scott Mckenzie


    We used to use an accounts package called Lakeview, a reasonably small company but written and supported totally in house.

    We saw a few classics, such as:

    "Lakeview is confused"

    "An error that shouldn't occur has occurred"

    Sadly we're on to a new system now so i don't get to see them anymore :(

  51. Rob Aley
    Gates Horns

    Tablet PC

    Not quite an error message, but one that wouldn't let me pass :

    I was re-installing Windows XP Tablet Edition on my Motion Computing slate (i.e. no keyboard) Tablet PC.

    The installation went fine, until the point Microsoft asked me to press F8 to accept the terms of the license.

    It now runs Ubuntu.

  52. Peter Fenelon

    error msg

    Windows for Workgroups once took a perverse delight in telling me that drive C: was out of paper.

    I think it was something terribly exotic like trying to use Beame & Whiteside's TCP/IP suite to print to a network printer...

    You can't beat "BDOS ERR ON A:" from CP/M, though, can you?

    And if you fancy a laugh, google "hodie natus est radici frater".

  53. GrahamT

    Airline systems

    In the olden days of command driven green screen reservation systems, typing *RAPE gave the error message "ILLEGAL ENTRY"

    I wrote a system using these green screens with just 32 characters for error messages. My first attempts were turned down as "Too terse and technical" and I was told to rewrite them to tell the user what to do, not what the problem was.

    I set up a dummy system with the new messages and showed it to the QA guy for his OK, telling him that I had had to use the live production system with 3000 users. He entered a sequence he (and I) knew would pop up an error. It now said "PHONE JOHN xxxxxx ON 01nnnnnn" with his name and home phone number. Oddly he didn't find it funny that 3000 users now had (he believed) his home phone number. He saw the joke when I explained that only he had that version.

  54. Michael Kean


    I had a good one today - a laser etcher with bad engrish.

    Pressing some button it said "Sorry, you have the wrong kind of dog to do this action."

  55. James Pickett
    Gates Horns

    Disk space

    Several times I've gone to uninstall MS apps and have been told that it is checking for sufficent disk space.

    My favourite (so far) is "Word cannot edit the unknown".

  56. Robert Ramsay

    on a Unix machine in the mid-eighties...

    ...a friend of mine typed


    of course, the system responded with

    shergar: not found

  57. Anonymous Coward


    One I remember from an IBM RT/6150 station waaaaay back:

    "qdaemon appears to be dead or asleep"

  58. TeeCee Gold badge

    Not just the message.

    I sent a link to this lot to a friend. He responded with something so funny that I just had to share.

    Many moons ago he did some customisation on a system for some users. Not having access to the code, this consisted of working out the function from the results and putting in some replacement modules in. To be 100% sure, he dropped in a little routine to check all the data afterwards and ensure everything was in order. It produced a couple of error messages thus:

    "If you are seeing this message, the system is SERIOUSLY fucked. Call <xxxxxxxx> now....." and the usual "Press enter to continue" or somesuch.

    Pressing enter gets you:

    "You haven't called <xxxxxxxx> have you??? GO AND DO IT NOW!!!!"

    One night, some time later, he was awoken by a user whose first question, asked in all seriousness was:

    "How the hell have you managed to interface this software to our telephone system?"


  59. Martyn


    on OpenVMS :

    $exit 2932

    %SYSTEM-F-FISH, my hovercraft is full of eels

  60. Paul

    Error: Please insert title

    Somewhat ironically, my first try at posting this with the title 0/10 resulted in the error "There are some problems with your comment: * A title is required."

    "think it was when you tried to login to the "Nobody" system account like it was a normal user account: 'You don't exist. Go away.'"

    I discovered this one when a root typo resulted in /etc being rm -rf'ed.

    For trs err msgs, the Sinclair ZX81 is hard to beat, with such gems as "2/20" indicating an undefined variable (error 2) on line 20. I preferred the Speccy's "Nonsense in BASIC" error though. :)

    "just one light on the dashboard which would light when there was a problem"

    Sounds like he designed the instrumentation in the Ford Pinto. It has a single "check engine" light which could mean overheating or low oil. Experience tells me it's going to be low oil...

  61. Opsmgr

    Don't panic

    How about from the SunOS days : Panic - Unable to panic.

  62. David

    BBS days...

    Still remember the one that Maximus would give if a BBS SysOp tried to upload from the machine the BBS ran on :

    Error 420: SysOp confused

  63. Richard Thomas

    Not an error message, but still amusing

    When I worked at a government site years ago one of the techies decided to name the database server "elvis". I tried to educate the users of my app to do basic troubleshooting before they called me, including the use of the ping command to see if they had connectivity. Of course on solaris when they ran "ping elvis" the response was "elvis is alive" :-)

  64. Neil Kay

    Netware 3.12

    Who can forget the immortal:

    "Richard Keil Memorial Abend #27"

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