MARCH
2001

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

03-22-01

Insects Creep into Everyday Language

Insects, it seems, are everywhere. Even our language is crawling with insect references. We have been known to describe each other in insect terms.

Almost everyone has heard a child depicted as "cute as a bug's ear!" I've always assumed that such a comparison to a bug's ear was a positive reflection. But how cute is a bug's ear anyway? It's hard to say. You see, insects don't have ears!

We assume that being as cute as something that doesn't exist is really cute. So cute, that it is impossible to describe-as indescribable as an old marketing slogan once proclaimed a delicious taste was.

A person with bushy, protruding eyebrows could be described as beetle-browed. Such a description is a double-whammy. The origin of the term beetle literally means to project, which is exactly what a brow is designed to do.

Eyes can also be described in insect terms, as in bug-eyed; of course that means that the eyes protrude more than normal. This is frequently the case in insects, where the eyes are the prominent feature of the head. Protruding eyes allow an insect to see in all directions without turning its head. Humans have the capacity to "bug" out their eyes in a show of emotion.

A person who is slight of build is sometimes referred to as a flyweight. The term is even used for a weight class in boxing. Flyweight is also used as a demeaning reference to someone who does not come up to some standard.

Beetlehead is a term used for "stupid fellow" or someone who does something really dumb. The word beetle historically has been used for a wooden hammer. Thus, beetlehead is used interchangeably with hammerhead. Neither is a term of endearment. The comic strip character Beetle Bailey no doubt is named because he does some really dumb things!

We also describe our behavior in insect-related terms. Someone with "ants in their pants" is fidgety and can't sit still. Of course, anyone who knows anything about ants is aware that these insects bite. Some, such as fire ants, sting. Either way, if ants are crawling on you, there is a chance of being bitten or stung. That is enough to make anyone wiggle around a little.

We even use the word "antsy" to describe a person who is anxious about something. While we don't go so far as to say that the person has ants on his or her person, the term suggests that might be so.

People who might be considered overzealous about something could be described as having a bee in their bonnet. If you've ever had a bee in your chapeau-or shirt for that matter-you know that the insect becomes an issue of utmost importance. It is so important that the afflicted person does not rest until the insect has been dispatched-thus, the accuracy of the description.

Sometimes a person is said to be busy as a bee. We all know that bees are hardworking. They have to be industrious to gather all of that nectar to make the winter's supply of honey. So a hard-working person is compared to the bee. But how much does a bee work? Not as much as most of us assume. Research has shown that most honey bees spend as much as 70 percent of their time loafing! But poet Odgen Nash says that we believe bees are hardworking because they are smart enough to buzz!

We also refer to making a beeline for something. The assumption is that we follow a straight line, as does the bee. Well, bees do take the most direct route to flowers when they follow directions transferred from another bee during the famous bee dance. However, after they have traveled the route, they navigate by sight and may detour around trees and structures-so much for making a beeline to something. That beeline often is not very straight!

Having insect ectoparasites, such as fleas and lice, has been a way of life for humans throughout history. Only recently have we been able to live without having to feed these insect moochers. But we still describe ourselves in terms related to these insects. If you aren't feeling very well, you might describe yourself as feeling lousy. In other words, you have a good infestation of lice.

Sometimes an unhealthy-looking person is described as flea bitten. This is an indication that he or she is being drawn down by an excess population of these blood-sucking insects.

In a less serious vein, getting nervous before some event is sometimes put in terms of "having butterflies in your stomach." That, we must assume, is a step up from feeling lousy!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox