Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.


Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Is "Bug Guy" A Term of Endearment?

Several times in my life I've been called "Bug Guy," as in "Hey, Bug Guy!" I'm not sure whether I should be honored or offended by such a moniker. To be honest, I don't spend much time worrying about it. However, an old adage does hold that "you are known by the company you keep!" In that case, guilty as charged! Well, maybe.

You see, I claim entomology as a profession. And entomologists do deal with insects. And insects are bugs, right? Not really. Not all insects can correctly be called "bugs." But some can.

Insects, like all other living things, are placed in groups in a system of classification. One level of such a system is the order. In insects, order names include Coleoptera, Diptera and Hemiptera. The insects in these orders also have common names. Coleoptera are beetles, Diptera are flies and Hemiptera are the true bugs. And that, my friend, is where the rub comes in.

Some scientific purists would say to really be a bug person you would have to work primarily with Hemiptera ­- the true bugs. If you worked with flies, you would be a fly person -- a Dipterist. In like fashion, a Coleopterist could be called a "beetle guy."

But, in everyday language, the term "bug" has come to have broader usage than its specific scientific basis. The word is commonly used for all insects and, occasionally, for disease-causing microorganisms as well. So "Bug Guy" is not a technically correct handle for everyone who happens to be an insect enthusiast. But chances are that any individual who is interested in insects is likely to be dubbed a "bug person" by some people.

Semantics aside, our names and our occupations or place of employment are among the most common ways that humans identify themselves. When we meet new people, we introduce ourselves first by name. But, it is a good bet that in many first meetings between people that occupations or places of employment come up quickly. What we do is one way that we have an identity.

That is the way it has been for eons. Early in human history, one personal name, say Tom, Dick or Harry, might have been sufficient. But, as more and more people came into existence, it became necessary to differentiate between folks with the same name. So, somewhere around the 13th century, some cultures began using personal names of two parts: a given name and a family name.

In Western cultures, the first family names reflected a variety of sources. Some were based on location. Tom, who lived by the hill, became known as "Tom Hill" and Tom, who lived by the river, "Tom River." Especially in Scandinavian countries, the practice of calling an offspring "Son of John" eventually evolved into a surname such as Johnson.

In patriarchal societies, surnames were often based on the occupation of the father. So, we have names like Miller, Cooper, Brewer and Taylor. Those names were based on men who ground the grain, made barrels, produced alcoholic beverages or sewed clothes, respectively.

Some people have more than two names; they also have a middle name. A third name is useful today to help distinguish between all of those Joneses, Browns, Lopezes and Changs in the phone book. Middle names might honor ancestors or relatives, or be the maiden name of the mother. In some Catholic families, the middle name is a saint's name.

One interesting middle name was that of Catherine Riley. Catherine was the daughter of a famous entomologist by the name of C. V. Riley. His daughter's middle name was Vedalia. As it turns out, Catherine was named after a ladybird beetle that her father had imported and introduced into the United States for control of cottony cushion scale in California. I don't know if Catherine was proud or not to have been named after an insect, but at least it was a beneficial insect and not a pest!

I guess I really don't mind being called "bug guy," since that is my occupation. But I hope that my daughter is glad her middle name is that of her great-grandmother and that my son is happy with his mother's maiden name as his middle name. After all, either of them could have been named after my favorite insect ­- a corn rootworm beetle!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox