Thursday, May 10, 2012

Word of the Week: Bug

The Ghost's Petition (1910),
Emma Florence Harrison
Bug is a word that you would think has a very earthy history. Bugs are insects or germs, any of those little things that crawl around and generally annoy us. (Bugs in software don't crawl around, but they certainly annoy us.) However, the etymology of bug is anything but earthy. It's rooted in the supernatural.

The earliest use of bug in relation to insects is from the 1620s, a reference to bedbugs. Bug likely derives from the Middle English word bugge, which means something that is frightening, like a hobgoblin, specter, or scarecrow. (I certainly find bedbugs frightening.) Bugge is probably related to the Low German word bögge, meaning goblin. The frightening part of bug's meaning is now obsolete but carries forward in the words bogey, bugbear, and bugaboo. The Scottish word bogill, meaning goblin or bugbear, and the obsolete Welsh word bwg, meaning ghost or goblin, probably influenced bug's etymology.

So what about those other words that carry on bug's frightening standard?

Bugaboo has been associated with a demon named Bugibu from "Aliscans" (1141), an Old French poem. Bugaboo may have Celtic origins as it is similar to the Cornish term bucca-boo, which derives from bucca, meaning bogle or goblin. In modern parlance, bugaboo means something imaginary that causes fear or something that creates distress out of proportion to its importance. Poe uses it in this sense in the following sentence: " I read no 'Night Thoughts'—no fustian about churchyards—no bugaboo tales—such as this" ("The Premature Burial").

Bogey became popular during World War II as slang among pilots for enemy aircraft. The word likely derives from bogge, a variant of the aforementioned bugge.

Bugbear combines the old meaning of bug with bear to create a creepy, bear-like demon that lurked in the woods and ate children. As with other folkloric creatures, parents used it to frighten disobedient children. In modern usage, the bugbear has been tamed to a metaphor for something annoying or a pet peeve. I think the old meaning is far more interesting.


  1. That's really interesting. I enjoy finding out the origins of words, they tend to be more interesting than the word itself.

  2. Very true, defcon. And it adds so much depth to a word. Don't think I'll ever look at a bug in the same way.