Crummy bugs

by on July 27, 2007 · 5 comments

in bed bugs, history

It’s often so hard to refrain from calling the bed bug a more urgent and pungent name. You know, a name as in name calling, which can be therapeutic.

Under the pretense of looking for Cimex L. in history, I’ve been trying to find some old timey slang that can help signify without offense. It’s not an easy task, and I’ve almost given up. But the search has been interesting! So, I offer a couple of random notes from the search.

Writing in 1921 about the differences between American and British English slang in The American Language, H.L. Mencken had this little note about our least favorite ectoparasite:

[A]n Englishman hesitates to mention his stomach in the presence of ladies, though he discourses freely about his liver. To avoid the necessity he employs such euphemisms as Little Mary. As for bug, he restricts its use very rigidly to the Cimex lectularius, or common bed-bug, and hence the word has highly impolite connotations. All other crawling things he calls insects. An American of my acquaintance once greatly offended an English friend by using bug for insect. The two were playing billiards one summer evening in the Englishman’s house, and various flying things came through the window and alighted on the cloth. The American, essaying a shot, remarked that he had killed a bug with his cue. To the Englishman this seemed a slanderous reflection upon the cleanliness of his house.

Tell it, HL. Bug, a word not for polite company.

Then I learned about crumb, thanks to the unfortunate Mary Jay who, having the misfortune of being sued by a lawyer, did what any reasonable person would do in such a miserable circumstance, write to the The Word Detective (Evan Morris) about the origins of the word lousy. Yep, lousy as in lousy lawyer.

In Morris’s entertaining reply, I found this:

“[C]rummy,” now used to mean “of low quality” or “unfair, untrustworthy,” comes from “crumb,” used in the 19th century as slang for a louse or bedbug.

Crumb is okay, I guess. I can picture a couple of early 19th century kids calling each other Crumb!

Needless to say, the search continues. Do let me know if you come across anything in your internet travels.

In the meantime, I’ll try to figure out the most elusive of my bed bug history notes: whether a 16th century “typo” in what is now the highly collectible Bugge Bible offers, in a curious and possibly very pre-Freudian slip, a tantalizing clue to the origin of “bed bug:”

“So that thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for any bugges by night…”

One has to do something when one can’t sleep.

1 hymenoptera July 28, 2007 at 12:17 pm

The Yiddish word for bed bug is vantz which is also used
on a human level in reference to ” a nobody” or “punk”.
The term is used to refer to lice as well. And for
you trivia folks there was a MASH episode in which
it was the missing word in a crossword.

2 Winston O. Buggy July 28, 2007 at 12:34 pm

In Tom Turpins book Flies in the Face of Fashion* he writes that the word bug
derives from the Celtic word “bwg” which meant a ghost or spirit. The word
“bwg” was probably first used to describe the bed bug. Since it hide during
the day and emerged at night often unseen (lack of track lighting or LEDs)
to attack sleeping humans its no wonder they felt victims of an unseen spirit.
By the way “bwg” is pronounced BOOG like in boogeyman or
more pc boogeyperson.
* 2006 Purdue University Press

3 nobugsonme July 28, 2007 at 11:12 pm

Very interesting, Nomo!
Thanks for your wonderful contributions this week!

I think it’s funny that the 19th C kids and the Yiddish speakers both used the same word for a louse and for a bed bug. Although bed bugs do indeed strike in darkness (usually), lice are visible.

And of course, Bedbuggers would MUCH rather have lice, which are comparatively easy to get rid of. (Every time I say this someone tells me I am wrong, but I must hold my ground on this.)

4 hopelessnomo July 29, 2007 at 7:32 pm


Hymenoptera and Nobugs, I think words for lice and bedbugs were used interchangeably in some languages depending on the historical period, to judge by the references including oral histories and such. It makes looking for things all the more confusing and harder.

Winston, I find the demon goblin precursor to our bed bug very satisfying, since I am indeed terribly afraid of bugges by night! I wonder when the substitution began and if the Bug Bible only slightly precedes it.

Also, on matters biblical, check out this great bedbug story uncovered by Seattle writer Charles Mudede in the extra-canonical Acts of John. 2nd century CE!

5 Willow-the-wisp July 30, 2007 at 7:26 pm

What’s a putz?

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