English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Bookworms, in etymology & entomology

Q: In Danger Calling, a 1931 mystery by Patricia Wentworth, it’s said that an obsessive bibliophile “will turn into one of those long, flat, grey unpleasant insects which live in the bindings of old books.” Are those insects the source of the word “bookworm”?

A: Yes, “bookworm” originated by joining “book” with “worm” used in its early sense of an insect that eats holes in the binding and paper of old manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “worm” here as “the larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like” and used “with defining term prefixed, as book, canker, case,” etc.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense of “worm” alone is from an Anglo-Saxon riddle about a book-eating moððe, or moth, a word that originally referred to the destructive larvae of various insects.

Here’s an expanded version of the dictionary’s excerpt from “Riddle 47” in the Exeter Book, an Old English manuscript believed to date from the 10th century. It’s followed by our translation:

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn, þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

(A moth ate words. When I discovered this wonder, it seemed to me a remarkable fate, that the worm, a thief in the night, had eaten the words of a man, a brilliant saying and the deep thought behind it. Though the thieving stranger swallowed the words, it was no whit the wiser.)

One possible answer to the riddle could be “bookworm,” but an answer isn’t given in the surviving manuscripts, and we haven’t seen any recorded examples of an Old English version of “bookworm.”

When “bookworm” first appeared in English writing in the mid-16th century, it was a negative term for an indiscriminate reader whose face was always in a book, much as we’d now regard a smartphone addict.

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve cut in some spots and expanded in others, is from The Praise of Folie, Thomas Chaloner’s 1549 translation of the 1509 Latin essay by Erasmus:

“those that take upon theim to write cunnyngly to the judgement of a fewe” suffer “many travailes, and beatyng of theyr braines” so “they maie have theyr writyng allowed at one or two of these blereied [blear-eyed] bokewormes hands.”

The OED’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey to the English poet Edmund Spenser.

In this passage, Harvey attacks Sir James Croft, a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, for being overly devoted to books and liquor, among other things:

“a morning book-worm, an afternoon malt-worm, a right juggler, as full of his sleights, wiles, fetches, casts of legerdemain, toys to mock apes withal, odd shifts and knavish practices as his skin can hold” (from Three Proper and Witty Familiar Letters, 1580, published anonymously, apparently by Harvey).

The use of the term for “any of various insects that damage books; spec. a maggot that is said to burrow through the paper and boards” appeared in the mid-17th century, according to OED citations.

As the dictionary explains, “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles.”

The first Oxford example for “bookworm” used in reference to insects is from a satirical book about the manners of the English:

Book-worme is of all Creatures the longest lived.” From Ζωοτομ́iα; or, Observations on the Present Manners of the English (1654), by the Oxford scholar Richard Whitlock. (The title uses Greek letters to render the post-classical Latin zootomia, source of the English term “zootomy,” the study of the dissection or anatomy of animals.)

The negative sense of “bookworm” when used for people was undoubtedly reinforced by the figurative use of “worm” since Anglo-Saxon days for a contemptible person, a sense that first appeared in Old English in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript:

“Ic soðlice eam wyrm & nales mon, edwit monna & aworpnes folces” (“I am truly a worm and not a man, the scorn of mankind and cast away by the people”). Psalm 21:7 in Vespasian, Psalm 22:6 in modern translations.

In fact, for hundreds of years “bookworm” was usually a negative term, according to OED citations and our own searches of digitized writing.

In The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson, Hedon says to Anaides: “Heart, was there ever so prosperous an invention thus unluckily perverted and spoiled, by a whoreson book-worm, a candle-waster?”

The poet Alexander Pope, in a 1717 letter to his friends Teresa and Martha Blount, describes his arrival at the University of Oxford: “I wanted nothing but a black Gown and a Salary, to be as meer a Bookworm as any there.”

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson cites Pope’s comment in defining “bookworm” as a “student too closely given to books; a reader without judgment.”

And in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Noah Webster defines “bookworm” as a “student closely attached to books, or addicted to study; also, a reader without judgment.”

But today “bookworm” is generally a positive term., an online descendent of Noah Webster’s dictionary, defines it simply as “a person unusually devoted to reading and study.” Other standard dictionaries have similar definitions.

However, the negative usage still shows up on occasion, as in this comment by the novelist Jojo Moyes in an interview with The New York Times (Feb. 9, 2023):

“I was an only child and a voracious reader. My grandmother called me a bookworm, and it wasn’t a compliment, as my weekly visits to her were usually spent with my nose buried between the pages.”

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