Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







So What's Bugging You?

Little boys have been known to “bug” older sisters and sometimes parents. Operatives of secret organizations fear “bugged” meeting rooms. Gossips have sometimes put a “bug” in a willing listener's ear. And we have all slept “snug as a bug in a rug” on a cold winter's night.

The word bug conjures up all kinds of ideas in people's minds. For instance, mentally ill people are sometimes incarcerated in a “bug house,” and society has come to regard such folks as “buggy.” Most of us have at some time in our lives committed a bug-a-boo, to the dismay of our colleagues. But what do children look like when they are “cute as a bug's ear”?

We may never know the answer to that question, since bugs don't have real ears, but most of our current uses of the word bug reflect an ancient meaning similar to the Celtic word “bwg,” (pronounced BOOG), which meant ghost or spirit. Such an idea, and the word, is incorporated into the thought of the boogey man – that mystical spirit of darkness sometimes used by parents to keep children in line.

The word bwg was probably first used to describe the bed bug. This pest of humans is rather reclusive in its habits. It hides in cracks and crevices of houses during the day. It emerges at night and, under the cover of darkness, attacks sleeping humans. To the ancient Celts who fell victim to this insect, it must surely have seemed that they were victims of a ghost or spirit. Thus, the name bwg. We call the shy creature a bed bug and, to this day, admonish, “Good night, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite.”

Scientifically, bug is used to describe members of the insect order Hemiptera, the true bugs of the insect world. Bugs include such aquatic insects as the giant water bug, water striders and backswimmers. And on our plants, we sometimes find squash bugs, stink bugs, and boxelder bugs. Ambush bugs and assassin bugs are, as their names suggest, predators – mostly on other insects. Kissing bugs, like the bed bugs, are pests of humans. They get their name from the habit of biting folks around the mouth.

Regardless of its scientific merit, the word bug is frequently used in reference to any insect. An entomological error! You see, all bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs.

Such a mistake was made by the computer folks who discovered that an insect had short-circuited their computer. The insect was a moth – not a bug – but after its removal, they coined the term “debug” to describe the process of fixing a nonfunctioning computer.

Oh well, most entomologists don't worry about the misuse of the term bug. You see, like a lot of other folks, we have learned not to let the little things in life bug us.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Steve Cain