Skip to Content

Mind your language

Mind your language: Bugs, bugs, bugs

There’s more life out there than words to name

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

If my husband were an insect it might well be a bug — a squat creature imbibing nutriment in liquid form. I had not taken much notice of bugs in an otherwise full life, and am surprised to learn there are nearly 2,000 species of British bugs.

The point I should like to make is that the language that any one person speaks is not up to the job of labelling many things. Only a minority of those 2,000 bugs have common names. Some are named after their food (such as the box bug, which used to live only on Box Hill eating box trees, but has now taken to plums in south-east England). Some are named after their appearance (the bishop’s mitre shield bug from its marking) or behaviour (water boatman).


But plenty have only Latin names. Batbugs live on bats, after their kind, but Oeciacus hirundinis is not, that I know, called the swallow-bug. Or there is Macrosaldula scotica, found running over boulders by streams in Scotland. What do the Scots say? ‘Och, a wee bug,’ is the best one could hope for. All sorts of leafhoppers, froghoppers, cicadas, aphids, psillids living on apple trees and psillids living on mistletoe also fall in the order Hemiptera or true bugs.

As far as English goes, bug was originally the word for ‘bed bug’, whose existence was hard to ignore. But bug is not found earlier than 1622, in a play by Dekker. Where did the word come from? Not clearly from bug meaning ‘hobgoblin’ (Welsh bwg = ‘ghost’). Anyway, the more bug was used for an insect the less it was used for a hobgoblin. Americans took to calling any creepy-crawly a bug. In the 20th century, germs began to be called bugs on both sides of the Atlantic. Computer-bugs are not metaphorical germs but insects, for Edison was complaining of a bug in his phonograph in 1889.

And now I discover that a kind of wasp nests in sand and feeds its young on bugs. Called Astata boops, it is acrobatic, as the Greek astata, ‘restless’, suggests. Its specific name, unlike Betty Boop’s, is two syllables: bo-ops, or ‘cow-eyed’. There is more life out there than I have words to name.


Show comments
Close