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Swordfish And The Password Dilema

The Marx Brothers

Whenever I hear the term “password” one thing comes to mind: the bit from the Marx Brothers movie, “Horse Feathers” where Groucho tries to get into a speakeasy but doesn’t know the password.  He tricks Chico, who is guarding the door, into telling him the password is “swordfish” and after entering the club, Groucho locks Chico outside.

I saw the movie for the first time back in the 70’s and never forgot it.  “Swordfish” became my response to anyone who asked for a password.  When I got my first computer in the 90’s, I had to use it.  It was so easy to remember.

Over the years “swordfish” was my go-to password until I learned not to use the same password for different applications.  Once someone learns your password, you can end up like Chico locked outside the door while someone has their way with your life.  Sadly, “swordfish” had to be retired to the password graveyard.

My home and work computers and their networks need passwords, so does my cell phone.  I have multiple e-mail passwords, social network passwords, bank passwords, the list goes on.

It’s starting to get a little ridiculous.

And it brings up a dilemma.   How are we supposed to remember all of them?  Yeah, I can write them down, but where do I put them - in the old-school rolodex next to my computer?  I’ve tried writing them in secret locations.  That’s turned out to be a bad idea as I’ve forgotten where they are. I’m forced to change the passwords and then decide where I’m going to hide the new ones. 

None of this is helped by the fact that passwords have gotten complicated.  They need a minimum of characters, numbers, symbols and capital letters.  It’s a little shaming when a web page tells me that my clever Fort Knox constellation of letters and symbols offers only “minimal protection.”  It means that my passwords now look like gigantic curse words in a newspaper comic bubble. 

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about all the old passwords that will continue to occupy space in his head.  I envisioned the two of us as old men on a park bench someday, talking.

“You know what was a great one?  My iTunes password in 2015 was “rhapsody.”  But instead of a ‘y’ I used two ‘e’s’ and a zero instead of an ‘o’ And the ‘a’ was capped.”

“Boy that was a good one.”

“Yeah, that was one of your best.”

“But it was no “swordfish.”

Tim was an online producer on VPR's digital team.
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