The Grammarphobia Blog

The earwig in fact and fiction

Q: How did earwigs get their name and is there any truth to the belief that they like to crawl into people’s ears to lay their eggs?

A: Before we get to the etymology, let’s clear up the entomology.

It’s a myth that earwigs lay their eggs in human ears. And it’s an even yuckier myth that they bore into human brains to lay their eggs, driving the poor hosts crazy.

Yes, earwigs like to hang out in moist, dark places, and ear canals fit that description.

But the entomologist May Berenbaum says she knows of only “one single reference in about ten centuries of literature to an earwig actually being found in an ear.”

In The Earwig’s Tail, her 2009 book about mythological bug stories, she suggests that the belief in the earwig’s attraction to human ears may have its roots in Roman times.

“Like so much entomological misinformation,” she writes, “the notion that earwigs infect ears may have originated with Pliny the Elder, first-century polymath who, among other things, believed that caterpillars originate from dew on radish leaves.”

Berenbaum cites Pliny’s advice in Historia Naturalis that if “an earwig … be gotten into the eare … spit into the same and it will come forth anon.” (We’re using the same 1601 translation that Berenbaum quotes.)

Now, on to the etymology. The modern word “earwig” comes from an Old English term, earwicga, a compound of words for ear and an insect of some sort. The two earliest written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary date from around 1000.

One of those citations, from the Old English Leechdoms, an Anglo-Saxon medical work, includes a cure in which a blade of grass or straw is used to drive an earwig out of the ear.

So, the myth about earwigs and ears was alive and well in Anglo-Saxon times, and we suspect that it played a role in the naming of the insect itself.

An etymology note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says wicga, the second part of the Old English word, is a member of the same family of words that has given us “wiggle” and “wag.”

“This group of terms,” American Heritage adds, “denotes quick movements of various sorts and the prehistoric ancestor of the Old English word wicga probably meant something like ‘wiggler.’ ”

Although there’s no truth to the belief that earwigs inhabit ears, many other languages have similar terms for the insect, according to Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois.

The French call the earwig perce-oreille (ear piercer), the Germans Ohrwurm (ear worm), the Russians ukhovertka (ear turner), and so on.

Since earwigs don’t inhabit human ears or brains, where do they hang out?

In a garden, you’ll find them in clumps of mulch and bark. In a house, you’ll find them in cracks and crevices. That is, if you really want to look!

A final note: Berenbaum says an earwig’s hind wings look a lot like human ears when unfolded. But she doesn’t buy that as an explanation for the insect’s name. And neither do we.

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