‘Insect’, from Latin, literally means “cut into”, referring to the divided bodies of ants, beetles, bees, and so on. But this list isn’t about insects; it has the broader focus of ‘bugs’, a word that somehow—mysteriously—rolls into one that massive diversity of animals most feared by domesticated humans. The origin of ‘bug’ isn’t clear. It may, like ‘bogeyman’, have something to do with the Middle English bugge (“something frightening”), Scottish bogill (“goblin”), Welsh bdwg (“ghost”), and Irish bocánach (“demons of the air”). We don’t know for sure.
As for the origins of individual bug names, they’re just as diverse as the innumerable species, genera, families, orders, classes, and even phyla that make up this imaginary kingdom. Here are ten of the most surprising.
Similar to ‘insect’, ‘ant’ means “to cut”. In this case, however, it refers not to their bodily divisions but the cutting they do with their mouths. Also unlike ‘insect’, it comes from Middle English not Latin. Ampte is the root. From there it can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European *mai- (also meaning “to cut”), the origin of ‘maim’ and ‘massacre’—as well as the other name for an ant, ‘emmet’ (æmette in Old English), which survived into the 20th century.
Interestingly, the homonym ‘aunt’ (as in a parent’s sister) comes from the Latin amita by way of a similar contraction. In Latin, however, ‘ant’ the insect is formica—from the Sanskrit vamrah (meaning “ant”). Hence its scientific name (and formic acid).
The industrial laminate of the same name, however, has nothing to do with ants. The brand name Formica means “instead of mica,” which was the earlier, more expensive alternative.
How did the Latin apis become the English ‘bee’? It didn’t! ‘Bee’ actually comes from the Old English beo, from the Proto-Germanic *bion. The beo in Beowulf also means ‘bee’. In fact, Beowulf means “a wolf to bees,” a figurative name for a bear (from their penchant for honey).
Bees are also the origin of ‘spelling bee’, ‘quilting bee’, and all the other kinds of ‘bee’ (including a ‘hanging bee’ or lynching). These busy insects have been synonymous with work and productivity since at least the 1530s, and with collaborative effort or groups since the 18th century (in America).
Having ‘a bee in your bonnet’, meanwhile, appears to have come later, from Scottish—although it may date back to the early 16th century: having ‘a head full of bees’ meant you were “mad” or “manic”.
‘Slug’ is pretty straightforward. It refers to the slow, sluggish movement of this terrestrial gastropod mollusc. In fact, ‘slug’ was originally applied—in the 15th century—to lazy, lumbering humans (later known as sluggards). Only in the early 17th century was it applied to slugs as bugs.
A ‘slug’ in the sense of a piece of crude metal for firing out of a gun is almost as old. And it also derives from ‘laziness’, despite its possible resemblance to the mollusc.
‘Snail’, meanwhile, dates back to 1000 or earlier. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European *snog- or *sneg-, meaning “to crawl” or “to creep”. As you might have guessed, ‘snake’ (via Old English snaca) shares the same root.
‘Tarantula’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Nowadays, it applies to any of the 1,000+ species in the family Theraphosidae—big hairy spiders native to the Americas. Originally, however, it applied to a single species from a completely different family—Lycosa tarantula—a type of wolf spider found in southern Europe. It was named for the Italian seaport Taranto in its native Apulia region. (As for the origin of Taranto itself, it may come from the Illyrian darandos, meaning “oak”.) The Spanish are thought to have applied the name to spiders in the New World. They recycled Old World names for pretty much everything they encountered, despite the obvious differences. Lycosa tarantula, the tarantula wolf spider, is big for a European species, but nowhere near as big as a tarantula. In fact, it’s only around half the size of the smallest tarantula specimens.
In any case, it’s from the tarantula wolf spider that we get the words ‘tarantism’ and ‘tarantella’ too. First described in the 15th century, tarantism—a dancing hysteria—was thought to be caused by a Lycos tarantula bite. ‘Tarantella’, meanwhile, is the name of the cure, also a dance, invented around Taranto.
While we’re here, we might as well look at the origins of ‘spider’ and ‘arachnid’. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, ‘spider’ comes from the Proto-Germanic *spin-thron-, a reference to its web-spinning. And ‘arachnid’ comes from the Greek word for ‘spider’, arakhne. It was also the name of a mythical figure who challenged Athena to a weaving contest, then hanged herself because the goddess jealously tore up her tapestry. In the end, Athena turned the rope into spider’s silk and Arakhne into a spider.
‘Worm’ comes from the Old English wyrm, meaning “serpent,” “snake,” or “dragon.” Hence early records of St. Patrick driving the worms out of Ireland, not the snakes. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer-, meaning “to turn” or “to bend”. Pretty self-explanatory. It describes a movement as much as the creatures, forming a broad category that also included scorpions, maggots, and, in Russian at least, insects in general (vermie).
As an insult it’s as old as Old English, you abject, miserable worm. So, in other words, ‘worm’ is the original ‘bug’: a catch-all for all things repulsive.
The name of the cricket comes from Old French criquet, from criquer, “to creak” or “to rattle”. It’s basically onomatopoeic. And while it may seem worlds apart, the sports game has the same root; the rattling refers to wickets.
‘Wicket’, meanwhile, means “to bend” or “to yield”, from Proto-Indo-European *weik. This gentlemanly yielding has long been synonymous with the sports game itself, hence “it’s just not cricket” refers to unsporting behavior.
The name of the hornet, everybody’s least favorite vespid, was originally onomatopoeic, or imitative. In Proto-Indo-European, it mimicked the insect’s loud buzzing—which survives in the German Hornisse and Dutch horzel, as well as the Lithuanian širš? (pronounced sheer-share).
In English, as in other Germanic-derived languages, the ‘horn-’ also refers to a horn (as in a trumpet). In Old Saxon, the hornet was hornobero, or “trumpeter”.
‘Horn’ itself comes from Proto-Indo-European too—namely, from *ker-. This root survives in many seemingly unrelated English words, like ‘Capricorn’, ‘carrot’, ‘corn’, ‘triceratops’, ‘unicorn’, and so on. All of these are either horned or horn-shaped things, a category to which hornets—with their savage stinger spikes (or, alternatively, antennae)—definitely belong.
Another bug name surprisingly related to its homonym, ‘flea’ may come from ‘flee’ (as in “to run away”), in reference to its jumping around. It comes from the Proto-Germanic *flauhaz, not (as in Romance languages) the Proto-Indo-European *plou-. So the connection to Old English (fleon, “to flee”) would make sense.
Flea markets, on the other hand, have nothing to do with running away—despite folk etymologies to the contrary. One such theory claims the market stalls of Paris were forced to flee their alleyways and side streets to avoid getting caught in demolitions. But the French word for ‘flee’ (as in “to run away”) is fuir, so this theory doesn’t make sense. Another spurious origin for ‘flea market’ claims the Dutch traders of New Netherlands (New York) called their markets vlaie (“swamp”) markets because they were held on a former salt marsh. The truth is much simpler: dating to 1910, it comes from the French marché aux puces (“flea market”), so-called because of the fleas thought to live on old clothes and furniture.
It’s a common misconception that ‘butterfly’ used to be ‘flutterby’. But it’s not just an honest mistake; it’s a “genteelism” meant to hide the true origin: the butter-like color of its excrement. The Dutch are more frank; they just call this insect a boterschijte.
Another folk etymology suggests butterflies (or witches disguised as butterflies) would land on uncovered butter. Yet another suggests the name comes from the pale yellow color of many butterflies’ wings.
The butterfly’s larval stage, meanwhile, the caterpillar, is named for its hairy appearance. From the Old French chatepelose, it means “shaggy cat”. (‘Cat’ in Latin is catta and ‘shaggy’ is pilosus.) For the same reason, in modern French, it’s called a chenille (or “little dog”), and in Swiss German a teufelskatz (or “devil’s cat”).
1. Ladybug (or ladybird)
Ladybird or ladybug? There’s no meaningful difference—although ‘ladybird’ sounds more affectionate. As a family of more than 6,000 species, it’s long been a favorite of humans. One reason is pest control. In its brief, three-to-six-week life, a ladybug will eat an average of 5,000 aphids, starting from the moment of birth. Another reason, of course, is the shell—among the prettiest in the animal kingdom.
Our fondness for the beetle explains the ‘lady’ too. It’s not just a reference to the patterning, but, specifically, to “Our Lady,” the Virgin Mary. In German, it’s name is even clearer: Marienkäfer, meaning “Mary’s beetle”. The seven black spots on a ladybug’s shell are Mary’s seven sorrows, while the red is the cloak that she wears. It’s this red, or scarlet (coccineus in Latin), for which the ladybug family is named Coccinelidae. Interestingly, the Catholic priest who came up with that name was spared execution because of his knowledge of beetles.
In English, the ‘bird’ may refer to “Our Lady” too. From at least the Middle Ages, it applied to a maiden, a woman of noble birth, or the Virgin Mary. Adding to the confusion, ‘ladybird’ was in use long before the beetle was named in the 1670s. It meant “sweetheart” and dates back to the 1590s. ‘Ladybug’, which came after ‘ladybird’ as a name for the insect, could have avoided confusion—if it caught on. But the British found it called to mind buggery and spent the next hundred years coming up with alternatives—like ‘ladycow’ and ‘ladyfly’—before finally settling on ‘ladybird’ again.