How Bugs and Insects Influenced the English Language

Posted by Mark A. Puglisi, ACE on Wed, Jun 15, 2016 @ 10:16 AM


When you hear a fly buzzing in your window, or you see a snail in your garden, your first thought is not likely to be about how these pests influenced the English language. You want the pests gone, and you don't care about their impact on the way you speak.

However, learning the origins of bug-related expressions can reveal interesting information about the interaction between bugs and humans throughout history. This way, the next time you tell your critical neighbor she's too nit-picky, you can be grateful that she's not actually picking lice eggs out of your hair.


First known use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: 1951

As mentioned above, this phrase originally referred to the act of combing through a person's hair to remove lice eggs, also known as "nits." They affected humans all across Europe during the Middle Ages. Due to poor hygiene, lice were nearly impossible to prevent, and the only sure way to get rid of them was to manually pick the eggs out one by one.

In modern times, lice infestations are relatively rare, and specially medicated shampoos can kill the parasites easily. The act of nit-picking survives as an expression used to mean criticism of small and generally unimportant issues, likely because medieval nit-picking was a tedious task focused on removing nearly invisible pests.


First known use: 1830

Ancient and medieval civilizations saw bees as highly organized animals with their own laws and customs. They seemed in awe of the bee's industry and absolute loyalty to the elected "king bee".

However, some of the medieval beliefs about bees have been disproved by modern science. For instance, people used to believe that bees did not reproduce, but were born from the flesh of dead cows. They also believed that bees instinctively flew in a straight line back to their hive once they collected nectar.

While bees do possess impressive communication and navigational skills, they don't hone in on the hive as the ancients believed. Modern knowledge of bee behavior cleared up many misconceptions, but these ancients beliefs remain a part of our language in the term "beeline," a noun referring to the straight, fast course one takes when fixated on a destination.

Social Butterfly

First known use: 1837

In the 1800s, society and fashion were an important part of life for middle- and upper-class men and women. Women, especially, favored elaborate and colorful gowns, making the comparison to the brightly colored butterfly only natural.

The term originally had a derogatory connotation, as these brilliantly dressed young ladies were often seen as flitting from one social engagement to the next, seeking momentary entertainment. Over time, the phrase has softened to mean anyone who thrives in social settings and enjoys being in the company of others.

This phrase isn't unique to English. In China, they refer to a very social person as "a butterfly dancing among the flowers."

Flea Market

First known use: 1891

The term is a literal translation of the French expression marché aux puces, which referred to an open-air market that opened in Paris in 1860. Many such markets exist around the world under a variety of names, but the French was called the "market of fleas" because so many older, second-hand items had to be infested with fleas.


This word has come to have a large variety of meanings since it entered the English language in the 14th century as a synonym for monster or bogeyman, or anything that causes fear. It can mean a "true bug," a category of insects that includes species like aphids and cicadas. It's often used as a general term to describe any type of small invertebrate.

In modern times, it's also used to mean a small listening device or computer error. As a verb, it means to irritate or annoy someone or to leave an area quickly (bug out). Due to its long history and varied meanings, it's hard to trace how each definition of bug came to be. Etymologists aren't even sure how the term for a monster of terror came to be applied to beetles.

The first recorded use of "bug" as slang for annoying came in 1949, described as a popular term used by jazz musicians. "Bug" as a listening device or spying technique was first recorded in 1919, and may refer to the ability of insects to infiltrate any location and remain hidden.

Of all the meanings, the one with the clearest meaning is as an issue with technology. In 1889, Thomas Edison claimed that he had spent several days trying to fix a bug in his phonograph machine. The Pall Mall Gazette, the London evening newspaper that published the expression, explained that the term draws upon the image of a small insect hiding inside the machine and causing it to break.


It's clear that bugs had a major impact on the development on the English language, but that doesn't mean you need to let them stay in your house. If you have a pest problem and want an eco-friendly solution, call Greenleaf Organic Pest Management.