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An Entomological Etymology

September 11, 2017
by Krissy Eliot

Over the centuries, bug has become an astonishingly versatile little word, with roughly six common meanings and 170 slang uses. But why? Where did the word come from and how did it manage to so infest the English language?

The question was buggin’ me, so I called up Geoffrey Nunberg, renowned linguist and professor at the Berkeley School of Information, to see what he could tell me.

“Well, it’s a good syllable,” Nunberg said. “It’s a closed syllable, that starts and ends with what’s called a stop-consonant. The syllable lends itself to this kind of extension in a way that insect doesn’t.”

Also: “Words often have two mothers, so to speak. The word will come from one sense, but it’ll be influenced by the other sense.”

In its larval stages, said Nunberg, bug had two main definitions. One was insect-like creatures. But the earliest use was much darker.

It’s our repulsion that, for the most part, seems to give a bug its buggy-ness.

In the 14th century, bug made its debut appearance in the first Latin-to-English translation of the Bible.

The passage describes a scarecrow or hobgoblin—“a bugge, … a man of raggis”—and the word was later used for monsters: bugaboo, bugbear, and then bogey(man). It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word molted, leaving its evil-spirit exoskeleton behind in favor of describing real-life creepy crawlies. The fact that the second meaning usurped the first isn’t that shocking—seeing as you’re much more likely to encounter a ladybug than a bugbear.

Nunberg said it’s possible we started referring to insects as bugs because they embody typical representations of monsters. After all, in the insect sense, bug was likely first used to describe bedbugs, which creep up on us in the night like vampires and suck our blood. It’s our repulsion that seems to give a bug its buggy-ness.

“The phenomenal appearance makes it a bug, and in that sense, it’s given us a lot of the uses we have,” Nunberg said.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word crept into common usage in electronics as the computer bug. The widely told story is that the term was coined in 1947 by Grace Hopper, the legendary computer scientist and Navy rear admiral. Supposedly, she found a moth in a relay in Harvard’s Mark II electromechanical computer, and after that she and her staff took to calling all such glitches bugs.

However, although Hopper may have found the first literal bug in a computer, engineers had already been using the term for decades. It’s unclear whose mouth originally spawned it, but we know the man who made it popular: Thomas Edison.

Edison started using it when he was working on a quadraplex telegraph system, one that could send four telegrams on a single wire. Problem was, the device kept creating a false break in the message signal. He eventually made a “bug trap” to isolate the break, and from then on, the inventor regularly scribbled about electronic bugs in his journals.

“Mr. Edison, I was informed, had been up the two previous nights discovering ‘a bug’ in his phonograph,” a journalist wrote in an 1889 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette. “An expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”

With the increase of computer-glitch bugs in modern life, could that meaning replace bugs as insects just as the insect bugs replaced bugbears and bugaboos?

Next came the use of bug as a secret listening device. When Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, the microphones were still too “buggy” for the phone to be viable. Eventually, they fixed the problems via Edison’s carbon microphone, which was used for both amplifying sound and recording it. Later, certain very small mics were sometimes called bugs, which lead to bugs as eavesdropping devices.

But why were the mics called bugs if they were no longer buggy? One theory is that this slang usage came from 1920s criminal underworld lingo; any house equipped with a burglar alarm was said to be “bugged,” perhaps because alarms are pests to robbers.

While Nunberg and I buzzed back and forth on the line, I wondered: With the increase of computer-glitch bugs in modern life, could that meaning replace bugs as insects just as the insect bugs replaced bugbears and bugaboos? Nunberg said nah, not anytime soon.

“It really depends [on context]. … If you were at a picnic, bug is going to be more common in the insect sense, and if you’re in the computer lab, it’ll be in another,” Nunberg said. “Words spread because we use them more often. … Most people aren’t talking about the inner workings of machines and software.”

Not yet.

After the birth of the e-bug, the meanings multiplied further to describe germs and pathogens like viruses, according to Oxford Dictionaries, with flu bug getting wings in the early 20th century.

“It’s an obvious extension of the little crawling thing—these tiny little microorganisms,” Nunberg said. “Kind of a joke that people in medicine made,” and one that stuck.

Around the same time period, people started using the word to describe something irritating (“Quit buggin’ me!”), someone who is crazy (“I’m buggy for ya!”), or even an uptight person (“You’ve got a bug up your ass!”).

Despite its many iterations, ultimately, bug is generally used to describe things that vex us.

“In all its senses, [bug] is something irksome, irritating, or undesirable,” Nunberg said. “There are a lot of irritating things in the world.”

I asked Nunberg if he has any favorite uses of the word, to which he replied, “No. I don’t use it.” And after he crushed our interview, I asked him if he was more likely to crush a bug or carefully usher it to freedom. “Oh, I kill ’em,” he said.

I’d gotten my answers, and promptly bugged off.

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