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
Follow us online at Purdue Agriculture News Columns

Slug bug

slug bug
Model Beetle
Photo credit: John Obermeyer/Purdue Entomology

The phrase "slug bug" probably doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. To some folks, it suggests using force to subdue some creature of the six-legged kind. In this regard, there is even a professional pest control company with the name "Slug-A-Bug."   

To other people -- me included -- the phrase is in reference to a childhood game played when riding in a car. "Slug bug" is a spontaneous, interactive endeavor that goes like this. When someone spots a Volkswagen beetle out of the window, they yell "slug bug" or "punch bug" along with the color of the vehicle and smack the person sitting next to them in the shoulder with a doubled-up fist.

This game has been played by at least three generations of youngsters. It is one of several games that were standard fare for kids when confined in an automobile.  Such games were important to help remove the boredom associated with the long road trips of summer family vacations. That was before four-lane interstate highways shortened travel time and before iTunes, Netflix and Minecraft kept seat-belted kids occupied. 

Just for the record, my first over-the-road vacation trips were in what today are considered vintage autos, which lacked seat belts, air conditioning and GPS systems.  So without an automated voice providing driving directions, a road atlas was a vacation trip necessity. Looking at such an atlas also provided something to do when the scenery out the window was cornfield after cornfield in the Corn Belt or wheat field after wheat field in the western areas of the Great Plains states.    

Another road trip activity was watching for various states on car license plates.  In our family, extra points could be earned if you spotted a license plate from outside the U. S. Therefore, Canadian vehicles were a real find. Such a contest also meant running around parking lots at places such as Yellowstone National Park in search of cars with plates not yet checked off our lists. "I spy" and "twenty questions," or similar games, were also popular as the car went rolling along.   

Exactly how and when the “slug bug” game originated is unclear. For sure, some time after World War II, following the introduction of the Volkswagen auto to the U.S. market in 1949.

Volkswagens first appeared in 1937 as a result of a directive from Adolph Hitler that a vehicle be manufactured that was affordable and could seat two adults and three children -- the people's car. The design that emerged was a rear-wheel drive, compact car featuring an air-cooled rear engine. Known as a Type 1 Volkswagen in manuals, it was produced from 1938-2003. 

Also lost in history is exactly how the name beetle or bug came to be used for the Type 1 Volkswagen automobile. The first of these cars were produced in quantity in 1945, when the British Army occupied Germany and ordered 20,000 of the vehicles be built. British soldiers took some of these Volkswagens home. It has been reported that in 1950 a group of school kids dubbed one "a beetle." In 1958, Autosport magazine reported on the Mobilgas Round Australia Rally and mentioned the "victorious beetles." 

No doubt, the similarity in shape of the Volkswagen Type 1 and the most common type of insect in the world -- the beetle -- suggested the name to those British school kids. For sure, the outline of the automobile and many beetles of the insect kind are reflected in slang words used for the car in numerous cultures. In France, it is called la Coccinella, or ladybug.  In Italy, Maggiolino or Maybug.  Even Germans dub the car Der Kafer, or beetle.

In Brazil, the car has been called Fusca -- a Portuguese term for beetle or in a broader sense, a bug.  In Central America, the car is sometimes called Cucaracha, a word that is used for a cockroach. In the U.S., both beetle and bug are used for this type of Volkswagen. The manufacturers eventually adopted the worldwide use of the insect name for the car. In 1969, official Volkswagen publications referred to the auto as the Beetle.

The Volkswagen Beetle is certainly a classic automobile. Why else would kids today turn away from their electronic gadgets and initiate a game of Slug Bug? Could it be that punching your sibling or a neighbor kid in the shoulder is still more exciting than beating them in a video game?


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox