Bugs! An Etymological Exploration of Entomology


From the Old English budda meaning "beetle," this word refers to hemipterous insects (those with forewings and piercing mouths known as "true bugs"). In colloquial usage bug may represent any insect class and small arthropods like spiders ticks, and centipedes. Over time "bug" has taken on some verb senses like "to annoy," appearing in 1949, and "to equip with a hidden microphone," in 1919. So put on your gardening gloves, it's time for bug etymologies!


The cicada is a large hemipterous insect with translucent wings. Cicadas feed on the sap of trees and roots. The name is derived from the Latin cicala meaning "tree cricket", despite the fact that cicadas and crickets are not in the same insect order. Deep-fried cicada is a delicacy in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but aside from their taste cicadas are known for their song, a rhythmic vibration produced by males in search of a mate.


Whether in the ointment or on the wall, the fly is one bug that has a permanent home in our lexicon. The common house fly is part of the order Diptera, a word derived from the Greek di, meaning "two," and ptera, meaning "wings." The root of our modern word "fly" took a twisted etymological journey through Old English and Old High German as "flee" (to run away) branched off from "flea" (the hopping insect), and "fly" (the verb) departed from "fly" (the noun).


The word mosquito is derived from the Spanish mosca for "fly" plus the diminutive suffix -ito, but this "little fly" is out for blood. Unlike its etymological predecessor, the mosquito has a long proboscis, or sword-like, mouth for sucking blood. Though mosquitoes belong to the same taxonomic order as the fly, Diptera, they belong to a different subcategory, the family Culicidea characterized by particularly bloodthirsty females.


If you feel guilty whenever you swat a mosquito, never fear! The dragonfly will do your dirty work for you. This lovely bug is stout bodied, non-stinging, and feeds on mosquitoes and other insects. Dragonflies have long wings that remain outstretched even when at rest. Vernacular names for this elegant creature vary from region to region: the "Devil's Darning Needle" in the Northwest, the "Snake Feeder" in Midland US, and the "Mosquito Hawk" or "Skeeter Hawk" in Southern Coastal regions.


This friend of the garden isn't a bug at all. From the Old English wyrm, worm once meant "serpent" because in ancient taxonomy worms were categorized among snakes, scorpions, and maggots. Today "worm" can refer to any slender, soft-bodied, legless invertebrate from flatworms to annelids. Charles Darwin was an advocate for earthworms: "Long before [the plow] existed the land was, in fact, regularly plowed and still continues to be thus plowed by earthworms."


Most famously one of the ten plagues of Egypt, the word locust represents many grasshoppers in the family Acrididae. Though cicadas are often referred to as locusts in the vernacular, they do not share a taxonomic family. Locusts travel in swarms and consume green plant matter wherever they descend, but the word "locust" is derived from the word "lobster". In Old English locust referred to any unidentified arthropod, lumping lobsters and locust in the same group.


Hopefully they're not in your pants, but if you're antsy to learn about this bug, you've come to the right place. Ants are members of the family Formicidae, small insects living in complex social colonies. From the Old English aemette combining the ai for "away" and mait meaning "cut," the name translates to "the biter off" referring to ant's powerful mouths, and possibly the visible segmentation of the ant body. Some would call our next bug "the bee's knees."


Like ants, bees are of the order Hymenoptera and not considered true bugs. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees all of which feed on plant nectar and pollen, performing the vital task of pollination while producing honey and beeswax. From the Germanic root bi, the word has possible origins in the Aryan bhi meaning "to fear" in the sense of "quivering." There's debate as to whether the quivering refers to the buzzing of the bee or fear on behalf of those in its path.


Though this friend of the garden has the word "bug" in it's name, the ladybug is not a true bug. Ladybugs are small round beetles of the family Coccinellidea that are often spotted and brightly colored. Their diet consists of aphids and other small bugs that feed on the plants gardeners work so hard to grow. In its vernacular name, the "lady" originally represented the biblical Virgin Mary, but in British English the insect is often called the "Ladybird Beetle."

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