Word Improvisation

Illustration by Sergio Ruzzier BE assured: in what follows, you won't be subjected to any descriptions or analysis of the Y2K problem. What's of interest here is a question of origins: whence the bug in "millennium bug"? Since the prospect of electronic cataclysm has many people antsy (from the 1930s phrase ants in your pants), it's a good time to consider the convergence of entomology and etymology.

The word bug, meaning "insect," settled snugly into English centuries ago -- but no one knows precisely how it got there. Spontaneous generation? The best theory may be that it's a relative of the Old English budde, a beetle, but the Welsh bwg (which sounds a lot like the nickname of the 1960s and 1970s Orioles first baseman "Boog" Powell, and means "an object of fear, a terror") may be crawling around in there as well. "Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night," advises the Ninety-first Psalm in Coverdale's Bible translation of 1535 -- and Coverdale wasn't thinking of insects. He was thinking of something more like bugaboos, which are "imaginary objects of fear."

has been a folk simile for at least two centuries; the indulgent cute as a bug's ear is a little more recent. The American jocular phrase knee-high to a grasshopper (usually descriptive of the short stature of extreme youth) had made its debut in print by 1905. Soldiers and buffalo skinners swore at graybacks (lice), pests that turned into the cooties and seam squirrels of the First World War (the Malay word kutu is the suggested etymon for cootie) -- though the British and the Australians just as often called them chatts. Kids in the 1950s often thought of cooties as some form of contagion rather than as insects like the one memorably apostrophized by Robert Burns in "To a Louse" (1786). His addressing it as "Ye crowlin' ferlie" ("You crawling wonder") suggests a playful yet appropriately bug-eyed attitude.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Gold Bug" in 1843. By 1868 advocates of the U.S. gold standard were termed gold-bugs; eventually the combining form -bug metamorphosed into something meaning "fan or enthusiast," and bugs came to be an adjective equivalent to "crazy." (Bugs Bunny, the Warner Bros. crazy-like-a-fox rabbit, was named for the animator Ben "Bugs" Hardaway; the name first appeared in an animated cartoon in 1941.) By 1950 bug out meant "run away"; lately it has come to mean "behave crazily; go wild."

Bugs are little in life, bigger in movies like Them! (1954), which featured giant ants, in an epoch when kids bugged Mom and Dad for their own plastic ant farms; Starship Troopers (1997), with "arachnids" that seem to have been spawned by Mack trucks and garbage disposals; and Wild Wild West (1999), with a robot spider that looks like the Brooklyn Bridge on a tear.

Midway in stature between actual bugs and movie megabugs is the Volkswagen Beetle. The bug manufactured by Volkswagen experienced breakthrough sales in the United States in the early 1960s in large part because of its reliability, its lack of design flaws or mechanical defects -- its lack of bugs, in other words. (Another important reason was the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency's classic series of understated ads with the headline "Think Small.") The bugs that plague mechanical, electrical, and electronic systems are often tiny or invisible -- like the microbial bugs that make you feel queasy or worse. Watergate bugs -- listening devices -- made the whole country queasy. Performance anxiety, however, is more likely to lead to butterflies in your stomach, a twentieth-century idiom often shortened to just plain butterflies. But it's normal to have some butterflies about the future. As somebody once said, "Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug."

J. E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Sergio Ruzzier.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Word Improvisation - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 116.