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Bugs: a postscript

Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.

In 1884 a correspondent sent a letter to the American journal The Nation asking why lighthouses are called bugs. The editor answered: “Perhaps the down-East American firebug, meaning ‘an incendiary’, would also be covered by the explanation sought for.” Now, why did firebug get this meaning? The usual answer refers us to the sense bug “fan, obsessive enthusiast,” probably best remembered from gold-bug, as in the title of Edgar Poe’s tale. Apparently, “enthusiast” is derived from bug “devil, goblin, boogie, boggart.” But to return to lighthouses. In the next issue of The Nation, someone who signed his letter by the initials F. M. had a slightly different suggestion about firebug: “To one who has always been used from childhood to calling fireflies ‘lightning-bugs’, and known that this name is common in New England, the name presents no mystery. …it seems to me most probable that the resemblance of an intermittent light to the fitful flashes from these ‘lightning-bugs’ has caused the fanciful term to be applied.” (Those among our readers who are old and happen to be professional linguists may remember an example illustrating the vagaries of English sentence stress: a lighthouse keeper versus a light housekeeper; it graced countless articles and introductory texts for students.)

Goblin or boglin?
Goblin or boglin?

The trouble with bug is that its usual meaning “beetle” or “insect” surfaced in texts only at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in contrast to bug “devil,” which has been known since the Middle English times. Although it is natural to suppose that beetles were associated with all kinds of demons, bug in its entomological (mind the difference between entomological and etymological) sense is such a neutral word that its expressive origin comes as a surprise. Yet we could perhaps accept it but for the chronological gap between the two senses. James Murray refused to ignore such an obvious difficulty, and those who came after him have not been more successful.

Yet bug “demon” and bug “beetle, insect” must be the same word despite the lack of evidence and all the facts that contradict this etymology. A piece of dried nasal mucus has several names. Some call it booger, while others prefer bugaboo. Are those little devils or little insects? Probably both. Bug “devil” may well be from Welsh, but, regardless of its ancient antecedents, it is an international Eurasian word. Its Russian equivalent is buka (pronounced as bookah). To show us the way, the diminutive bukashka (stress on the second syllable) means “a small insect.” The booger we remove from infants’ nostrils is called in Russian koziavka (stress again on the second syllable), a synonym for bukashka, that is, “little insect.” Has the affectionate word buggerlugs attached itself to children because their noses are full of bugaboos, with lug– merely rhyming with bug-? Be that as it may, the first element has nothing to do with bugger (and bugger has nothing to do with bug), while lugs, contrary to what has often been suggested, cannot mean “ears” here. The fact that this word is often applied not only to children would then be explained as a trivial case of the amplification of meaning. All the bugs seem to have been born somewhere between the nursery and the capricious sound symbolic world of the grownups in which the consonant group b-g inspires terror.

More than twenty years ago Mr. Frederick S. Holton sent me the following letter:

“I recently came across a footnote in Richard F. Burton, trans., The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (New York: Heritage Press, 1934), p. 1245, in which Burton derives the word bug from Arabic bakk. On the small chance that this is of some use to you, I send the text of the entire footnote: ‘Page 1175, line 3. Arab. Bakk; hence our bug, whose derivation (like that of cat, dog and hog) is apparently unknown to the dictionaries, always excepting M. Littré’s.’”

I owe a great deal to such friendly, selfless correspondence. At the end of the nineteenth century, Skeat used to write indignant letters to Notes and Queries, wondering why people keep suggesting stupid etymologies instead of looking up words in the OED.

A buggy of undiscovered origin.
A buggy of undiscovered origin.

Burton may have consulted the OED; yet he did not fear to tread where Murray felt unsafe and confused. To my ear (“lug”) the Arabic word sounds more like pug without aspiration, but this is not important, for pug and bug are interchangeable in the group under discussion. What matters is that one cannot postulate borrowing without explaining how a word from one language reached another (I am sorry for beating this willing—or dead—horse again and again). Littré, whose splendid French dictionary appeared in the eighteen-seventies, was an astute etymologist, as follows from both his own work and his multiple reviews in Journal des Savants. Here he noticed what I referred to above as the Eurasian dissemination of words like bug. From Arabic and Russian to Welsh and English bugs are bugs, bogs, boogs, and Pucks. I once saw a suggestion that boggart is a disguised compound going back to bar-ghost, that is, “threshold ghost.” Quite enough has been said in this blog about thresholds, but boggart cannot be connected with them. Whatever its origin, boggart is allied to bug ~ bog. Nor does the name Bogart have any ties with devilry.

A most edifying article on the origin of the term computer bug was written in 1987 by Fred R. Shapiro. Allegedly, one day in the 1940 the Harvard scientists discovered a moth in the computer and removed it gingerly, so that ever since any disruption in the work of machinery has been called bug. The most respectable media were not ashamed to promote this story. Like the targets of Skeat’s ire, those people never thought of looking up the word in the OED, for, if they had done so, they would have discovered that bug in this sense and the verb debug antedate the event they were describing with such glee. The engineering term bug dating from the 1800s reminds us of supernatural forces always on the lookout for unheeding humans. Also, when an embassy or our house is bugged, we bow to the spying agencies over which we have no control.

The topic is inexhaustible, but I promised dessert, not a meal. If you have not had enough, look up the idioms as cute as bug’s ear and as snug as a bug in a rug and think of Bugs Bunny. My real concern in what remains untouched is the etymology of the noun buggy. Did someone who invented the word and applied it to his gig feel buggy (that is, proud of himself), or does the buggy resemble a small bug? No one knows. The word seems to be of native origin.

If our readers find this type of tossed salad agreeable, I’ll be happy to provide it every now and then.

Image credits: (1) Goblin 19th illustration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Doll and buggy parade–WPA recreation project, Dist. No. 2 / Beard. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    To be fair to Fred, an assiduous and accurate quotation-tracker, he would have had to look in the Second Supplement, as the OED2 was not yet published in 1987 and the relevant OED1 fascicle predated the quotation.

    The bug in question (a moth) actually does exist and can be seen at the Smithsonian, though of course it is much too late to account for the etymology of bug. However, the Vibroplex telegraph key, invented in 1905 and still being made, uses an electrified beetle for its logo, and may have contributed to the popularity of the term. In skilled hands, the Vibroplex permits rapid transmission of Morse code; in unskilled hands, the results tend to be … buggy.

    I would be glad to see more posts like this one.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    On Buggy. This 1758 text does not appear to solve the etymology, but at least it antedades OED’s earliest citation of 1773. Available at Google Books, though clearer reprintings are in English newspapers. Imitations of Horace by Thomas Nevile (Cambridge and London, 1758, I: 33). (poem: On Occasion of some late Regulations in the University of Oxford.) All Vehicles put down! ’tis mighty just; It ill becomes the Gown to raise a Dust. Let Academicks walk, or else disclaim Their Right to Aristotle’s name…. Suspended Buggies, Capreoles and Chairs, Need we Subscriptions for Mile-End Repairs?
    https://books.google.com/books?id=n49bAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA33&dq=%22buggies+%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Nv9uVYP8NcPlsASw7IG4Dw&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22buggies%20%22&f=false

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    From systemic point of view such word pairs as bug/buck or log/lock seem to be somehow interrelated. What could be the reason for this -ck in English?

  4. Fred Shapiro

    I appreciate John Cowan’s defense of me in his comment, but the defense was unnecessary. Mr. Cowan seems to have misunderstood the nature of my 1987 article on “bug” and Professor Liberman’s discussion of that article. My articles on the computer “bug” did not neglect the OED’s Second Supplement. Quite the contrary: my articles on “bug” were the reason that the importance of the Supplement’s citation to Thomas Edison’s usage of “bug” became recognized and widely publicized. Professor Liberman is not criticizing my writings on “bug,” he is praising them.

  5. […] my post on bug, I mentioned the fact that the b-g nouns formed a group of words whose affinity is sometimes hard […]

  6. derek

    Can you say anything about “bug out” meaning “escape a threat quickly”? It seems to be military slang going back to the mid 19c. Could a buggy, as in a light carriage, be agile and speedy?

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