A Bug’s Life: Where Insects Get Their Names


With Spring officially upon us, there’s no better time to discuss one of our favorite topics: bugs.

From the Old English term budda, meaning “beetle,” bug usually refers to hemipterous insects, or “true bugs”–that is, insects with forewings that are thick and leathery at the base and membrane-like at the wingtips. Now that you have that visual … let’s move on.

In everyday speech, bug may refer to pretty much any insect class, as well as small arthropods like spiders, ticks, and centipedes. Over time, the word bug has taken on some non-insectival verb senses, like “to annoy,” appearing in 1949, and “to equip with a hidden microphone,” in 1919.

But, we’re sticking to the insect variety for this slideshow … the following are a few fabulous bugs worthy of a closer look.


The cicada is a large homopterous insect, which is to say characterized by large membranous forewings and hind wings. Cicadas are known for their song–loud, rhythmic vibrations produced by males in search of a mate.

Cicadas typically live in trees and feed on the xylem of trees and plants, although some species spend much of their lives underground–periodical cicadas famously spend 13–17 years of their lifecycle underground.

The name cicada is derived from the Latin word meaning “tree cricket,” despite the fact that cicadas and crickets are not in the same insect order. And, just in case you aren’t grossed out enough: Deep-fried cicada is a delicacy in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.


Whether found in the ointment or on the wall, the common fly is one ubiquitous bug.

Part of the order Diptera, a word derived from the Greek di, meaning “two,” and ptera, meaning “wings,” fly is used to describe thousands of different species of flying insects, from hoverflies to horse-flies to the more common houseflies.

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.

This “little fly” is out for blood; the mosquito has a proboscis, “an elongated, beak-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.

Some species also transmit certain diseases such as malaria and yellow fever; in fact, mosquitoes kill more people annually than any other animal. We knew we didn’t like them for a reason.


If you’re the type to feel guilty about swatting mosquitos, rest easy–the dragonfly will gladly do your dirty work for you.

Of the carnivorous insect order Odonata, dragonflies are non-stinging insects characterized by their elongated body and transparent wings, and they feed on mosquitoes and other insects. Dragonflies have long wings that remain outstretched even when at rest, an attribute that sets them apart from their smaller relative, the damselfly.

Within the US, common names for the dragonfly vary colorfully from region to region: the Devil’s Darning Needle in the North and West, 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 larvae to the common earthworm (of the phylum Annelinda). And, strangely, 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.”


Famously forming one of the ten biblical Plagues of Egypt, the locust represents several species of swarming grasshoppers in the family Acrididae.Locusts tend to be solitary, although each species is triggered into a swarming phase by appropriate environmental and social conditions, which can lead to “outbreaks” of locust swarms descending on areas and voraciously consuming any available green plant matter. (Hot tip: Cicadas are often mistakenly referred to as locusts, but they do not share a taxonomic family.)

Curiously, the word locust is derived from the Latin lucusta, meaning “lobster.” In Old English, locust referred to any unidentified arthropod, lumping lobsters and locusts into the same group.


Ants are members of the family Formicidae, small insects living in complex social colonies, under the Hymenoptera order.

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 mandibles, and possibly the visible segmentation of the ant body. Hmm.


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.” It’s unclear whether the “quivering” refers to the bee’s buzzing or to the fear of those in its path.


Though this friend of the garden has the word bug in its 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 plants many gardeners work so hard to grow.

Fun fact: The lady originally represented the biblical Virgin Mary, and in British English the insect is often called the Ladybird Beetle.

If you want to bug-out on more insect-related words, visit our good friend … they’ve got some good ideas.

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