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

Some human surnames suggestive of insects

Exactly when people began to acquire personal names is not known. My guess is that it was about the same time we began to connect through language. After all, language evolved as a way for people to communicate with each other. And if we were going to talk to someone, or about someone, it was necessary to have names for individuals. With apologies to Dr. Seuss, there were a lot of Whos in Whoville, and we had to be able to tell them apart. So we gave people names like Tom, Dick or Sally. 

In our early history, when there weren't a lot of us, most people had only one name. In modern times, if you are famous, or a king, queen or pope, one name is still sufficient. Names such as Madonna, Cher, Yanni, Pele, Elizabeth or Paul can stand alone. But, historically, one name can lead to confusion, so we have Elizabeth I and II, and Pope Paul I through VI.

Today, most people have at least two names - a given name and a surname. Your given name is one that your parents decide you should have. Your surname generally is a family name, the name of your father in some societies or your mother in others. Today, some people hyphenate their last names to reflect both paternal and maternal surnames.

Thousands of years ago, surnames captured something about the individual. For instance, a person's job: farmer, tailor or candlestick maker. Or the surname could indicate the place a person lived, as in a marsh or forest. Sometimes, a name would represent some physical attribute of the person, such as their stature being short or long.

Most of us don't pay much attention to the etymological origin for surnames, but some names just seem to speak volumes about the person. So much so that it provides fodder for comedians. From my own experience, I couldn't help but chuckle when I saw a dentist with the name of Pullin listed in the phone book. Then, someone told me of a hometown dentist named Paine. Ranks right up there with a fellow named Eggers who was the manger of a chicken farm.

There are a number of surnames that suggest an association with insects, although I don't know of any entomologists fortunate enough to have an insect-related name. One associated name is Bugg. The word bug is often used to describe any insect. But scientists point out that not all insects are bugs. Only certain insects are true bugs, those classified in the insect order Hemiptera.

A person with the last name of Bugg might not be proud of the insect association of their name. But the actual origin of the name would be of no comfort. The word bugg originally meant "cubby baby." It also was used to describe a hobgoblin, which was probably why the term was used for the insect known today as the bed bug. The insect was thought to be a ghost or spirit of the night.

The surname Beetle is a habitational name, which indicates the person came from an area near a spring. The name Worm, or Worms, sometimes used to describe the immature forms of flies, moths or butterflies, was used to describe a person who came from the area of the dark stream. Worms was a city in Germany made famous in the Diet of Worms, an imperial assembly that took place there in 1521 to address Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The Edict of Worms was a decree issued by Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, which banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state.

The names Bee and Fly, both used to describe insects, are also surnames. The name Bee originated in England, and the name Fly is of French origin. Several Bees and Flys were early settlers in the U.S. James Bee arrived in Virginia in 1651. Matthew and Thomas Fly came to Virginia in 1663, and John Fly made his way to New England in 1698.

Speaking of flies, the surname Maggot also exists. Maggot is the word used for the legless larvae of flies. It is unclear how the name Maggot originated. Like a lot of surnames, this one exists in many spellings, including Meggat, Megat, Meggot, Megit and Meggetson, among many others.

I was tempted to say that I am glad, in spite of my occupation, that my surname, Turpin, isn't something like Maggot, Worm or Bugg. Then, I looked up Turpin; it is based on the Latin term that meant ugly or base fellow. I guess I'd just as soon be a Bugg!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox