Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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This story could bug you

I admit it. The use of the term 'bug' has always bugged me a little. For sure, bug is a perfectly good word. The problem is that bug has several meanings.

Look up the word bug in any old print tome such as my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary or an online source, and you will read something like the following as a first entry. "Bug: In popular language, an insect of almost any kind, esp. a beetle, or an insect which creeps or crawls like a beetle; as a potato bug."

That definition is a good example of where popular language and scientific language diverge and disagree. Popularly all insects can be called bugs, but insect scientists reserve the term bug for only one group of insects - those classified as Heteroptera. So scientifically calling a beetle that feeds on potatoes a "potato bug" is incorrect.  Beetles are not Heteroptera, so they are not truly bugs in scientific language.

To be sure, the origin of the word bug is associated with an insect - that longtime nemesis of humanity known as the bedbug. The bedbug, it seems, was an unknown insect when humans became aware of bites from this nighttime creature. Not knowing what it was and having never seen one, they dubbed it a bugge, an old Middle English word that loosely meant goblin. The word was sometimes spelled bogge, and that spelling is the basis for a mythical night creature, the bogeyman.

So the bedbug got all of this bug stuff started. Today there are many different insect species that are classified as Heteroptera. These true bugs include such insects as boxelder bugs, ambush bugs, milkweed bugs, squash bugs and stink bugs.

Another true bug is the so-called kissing bug. This insect gets the first part of its name due to a rather despicable habit of taking a blood meal from humans by biting on exposed skin, especially in the vicinity of the mouth. Living up to the origin of the bug portion of its name the insect bites during the nighttime hours. To add injury to insult this bug also carries Chagas disease, a trypanosome disease of humans.

The term bug also has uses far not associated with insects. For example, it is a slang term for the causative agent of a disease. As in "I wasn't feeling well today.  I think I caught that bug that was going around at school." Clearly such a bug is not a six-legged insect.

Another slang term uses the word bug for a defect in an apparatus or in a system. We commonly talk about having to work a few bugs out of a system before it is ready to go. These bug defects are clearly not of the insect type. Although in one well-known instance an insect was involved.  I refer to the case where an early version of a computer broke down. It was determined that the reason for the failure was a short circuit caused by a wayward moth. The folks working on the machine found the moth that had caused the problem and declared that the computer was fixed. Such a process is still known as debugging a computer or a computer program, even though it was a moth, not a true bug that was the culprit.  

The term bug is also used for covert listening devices. These bugs are sometimes called wires and generally consist of a miniature radio transmitter and a microphone. Bugs of this type are certainly not insects but may have gotten their name from the old saying, "bug on the wall," which related to hearing a conversation without being detected. And that saying may have reflected the fact that a small insect on the wall could easily go unnoticed.

I guess I'll just not worry about the widespread use of the term bug for all insects or for non-insect things. We entomologists just can't let the little things bug us!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox