"The competent programmer is fully aware of the limited size of his own skull. He therefore approaches his task with full humility, and avoids clever tricks like the plague." [EWD340]

I am trying to understand this quote of Edsger W. Dijkstra. I understand that he emphasize to be a good programmer. However, I don't understand the meaning of 'the plague'. General meaning of 'the plague' is ill, but this context says it couldn't be.

3 Answers 3


"Avoid like the plague" is an idiom which means to ignore or keep away from someone or something totally..

Refer http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/avoid+like+the+plague

  • 3
    This readily-available, intuitive, and fully correct answer indicates that the question probably could have been (and perhaps should have been) asked on English Language Learners. The O.P. might want to see if that would be a good site to use for future questions.
    – J.R.
    Sep 23, 2013 at 14:46
  • And the phrase is more than a little cliched to the point that you don't see it much in professional literature anymore.
    – KeithS
    Sep 23, 2013 at 23:48

It means the programmer avoids clever tricks like he avoids the plague. The elision of the second "avoids" is quite natural in English.

So "the plague" is a reference to the literal plague.

  • 4
    There is the faintly possible ambiguity with the 'such as' sense: He avoids writing essays on epidemics like the plague. Sep 23, 2013 at 14:37
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    @Edwin: I suppose if we look at it from Yersinia pestis's point of view (that being the relevant bacterium), it might be possible to see the (bubonic) plague as a "clever trick". But actually it hasn't worked out so well for those bugs in the long run - they might be hanging on better than smallpox, but they're not much of a threat to us today compared to all sorts of "inter-species" viruses. Sep 23, 2013 at 21:36
  • "Literal" is misleading. A competent programmer does not avoid clever ideas by killing rats and spraying fleas. At most you could say it's a metaphor, if not an idiom. Sep 24, 2013 at 1:41
  • @GregHullender I reject your conclusion. Like here obviously means "as vehemently as" not "using the same methods as", so literal is quite correct. Sep 24, 2013 at 7:54
  • Well, here in America, the average programmer makes no effort at all to avoid the plague. Perhaps things are different in your place of work. ;-) Sep 24, 2013 at 16:53

The Black Plague (also called the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death) decimated medieval Europe back in the mid 1300s. Estimates run up to 200 million dead, which is a lot for the mid 1300s. (It was caused by a bacillus, carried by fleas, which came on rats, which arrived on boats. It was perhaps the nastiest thing ever to hit human-kind.

So naturally, it was something you should completely avoid.

Dijkstra wrote that back in the 50s [more or less]. Unfortunately, since then, it has become an overworked cliche - a phrase that has seen better days.

One set of the Rules Of Grammar has "Avoid cliches like the plague".

I don't think he meant that clever tricks were like the plague, but rather, that you should not use "clever tricks" at all. Clever tricks, in programming, will almost cause terrible headaches for people who have to update the program later on.

  • +1 ...he meant ...that you should not use "clever tricks" at all.
    – GEdgar
    Sep 29, 2021 at 11:55

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