What’s a bug?

A few days ago I used the term “true bug” when referring to a specific order of insects. This engendered some confusion, as a few people didn’t know the difference between “bugs” in common parlance and “true bugs” in scientific parlance.

You will want to know the difference, and Alex Wild explains at Myrmecos:

An issue that invariably surfaces when entomologists interact with non-entomologists is the “bug problem“.

I don’t mean pest infestation troubles. Rather, I mean that entomologists use a different definition of the word “bug” than the general English-speaking populace, with confusing results.

To most people, a “bug” is any small crawly animal. Like a spider, or a centipede, or maybe a chihuahua. To an entomologist, a “bug” is . . .

Go to his website to see.

43 Comments

  1. stvs
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Forgiven, by A. A. Milne

    I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,
    And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
    I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day …
    And Nanny let my beetle out —
    Yes, Nanny let my beetle out —
    She went and let my beetle out —
    And Beetle ran away.

    She said she didn’t mean it, and I never said she did,
    She said she wanted matches and she just took off the lid,
    She said that she was sorry, but it’s difficult to catch
    An excited sort of beetle you’ve mistaken for a match.

    She said that she was sorry, and I really mustn’t mind,
    As there’s lots and lots of beetles which she’s certain we could find,
    If we looked about the garden for the holes where beetles hid —
    And we’d get another match-box and write BEETLE on the lid.

    We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
    And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
    And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
    “A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!”

    It was Alexander Beetle I’m as certain as can be,
    And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
    And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
    “I’m very very sorry that I tried to run away.”

    And Nanny’s very sorry too for you-know-what-she-did,
    And she’s writing ALEXANDER very blackly on the lid,
    So Nan and Me are friends, because it’s difficult to catch
    An excited Alexander you’ve mistaken for a match.

  2. Posted May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Obviously, a bug is a misdesigned aspect of a computer program.

    Back in Australia, where I grew up, “bug” referred only to specific kinds of insects, though I was never sure which. It was a surprise to me, when I came to USA, to hear the term “bug” applied to insects in general (and perhaps spiders, millipedes, etc).

    • Karen
      Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but a “true bug” is a misdesigned aspect of a computer program that only shows up for the first time when the customer is watching.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      I have a policy that I do not willingly share my interior living space with any creature which is big enough to see and which has a natural complement of legs which is less than two or more than four (and if they have four, I much prefer it if they say “meow”).

      • TrineBM
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        I once tried to make an arrangement with a largish spider, that insisted on living in … my bed!
        I patiently explained, that if it as much as touched my mattress, it would die. If it turned around and walked away I’d gladly share my bedroom – but NOT the bed. It seemed to think about the alternatives (stopped 50 cm’s from my bed for five minutes) but then proceeded on it’s way into my bed. It died.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen some defs of “bug” that even include snails & slugs!

  3. Karen
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m a student working on a thesis, and I tend to stay up late at night writing. At a (for me) ungodly hour of the morning the other day, a representative from a local pest control company rang my bell. What did they want? Why, to offer me a $60-off coupon on regular service, promising to rid me of every “pest” within 30 feet of my home. I thought of the spiders that faithfully catch mosquitoes, the carpenter bees that pollinate my citrus trees, and the occasional beetle that finds it’s way into the house and gives the cats such joy, and gave them a polite “no thanks”. I should’ve given them a piece of my mind, but it was too early in my morning.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, spiders get a free pass at my place.

      • Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

        Same here– if I’m sitting down in the other room, my Jumpy Spiders sometimes come visit me, hopping slowly across my screen.

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:50 am | Permalink

          My entertainment last night was watching one of my tarantulas molt…

    • Dominic
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      Yes – it is one thing to deal with an infestation, quite another to randomly kill – a human trait, alas.

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      I had to re-roof a toolshed due to carpenter bees. It’s really quite amazing what they can do to a 2×4 in a decade or two.

  4. Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I like Alex’s explanation.
    Common names are truly colloquialisms.

    With plants, we have Geraniums in the US that are really Pelargoniums not true Geraniums. Or maybe the “annual”(in temperate climates) Vinca that’s really Catharanthus and not true Vinca. I could come up with dozens.

    It’s always simplest to use the accepted scientific name. Of course, even those get disputed from time to time… whatever happened to Dendranthema?

    • Dominic
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      I have in our library, what I thought was a geranium, but then discovered it is a pelargonium, but it has never flowered in 8 years. Takes a lot of abuse – a dry pot quite often – but still thrives vegetatively. Oh sorry Lynn – for a moment I thought this was ‘Gardener’s Question Time’!

      • Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

        More sun? 🙂

        • Dominic
          Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          No – it gets lots. Perhaps I should re-pot again…

    • Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      Common names can get dreadfully confusing–even more so if you’re trying to sort out colloquialisms in more than one language. I thought the Wagtails (Motacilla alba/grandis/cinerea…) would be the death of me. Not to mention the Azaleas… which are really rhododendrons, which… gah!

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Hardly anyone around these parts talks about plain bugs anymore. All they talk about is stinkbugs, specifically the brown marmorated kind.

  6. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Q: What is the difference between an entomologist and an etymologist?

    • Brian
      Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      etymologist studies the history of a word.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

        A: An entomologist studies bugs. An etymologist is someone who can tell you the difference between an entomologist and an etymologist.

        • TrineBM
          Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

          And an etymologically inclined entomologist can explain the difference between bugs and bugs

          • Alex, adv. diab.
            Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink

            An etymologically versed entomologist will tell you that the word bug appeared in the 1620s (earliest reference is to bedbugs), probably from M.E. bugge “something frightening, scarecrow” (late 14c.), a meaning obsolete except in bugbear (1570s) and bugaboo (q.v.);

            The bystanding entomologically inclined etymologist might add that beetle on the other hand probably originated from O.E. bitela, lit. “little biter,” from bitel “biting,” related to bitan “to bite” (see bite).

            • TrineBM
              Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

              Thank you! 🙂

            • Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink

              This is exactly why I like to come to WEIT– everything I like, all in one place:-)

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:53 am | Permalink

                Yes!

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

            “bugs” are types of insect.

            “Bugs” is a rabbit.

        • Brian
          Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:50 am | Permalink

          No, that would be a philologist or linguist. Or perhaps an English major.

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:40 am | Permalink

            I think all of those would be able to explain the difference, but the riddle hinges on the similarity between the two words (unless, of course, it is your claim that an etymologist wouldn’t know what an entomologist is, or you deconstruct all attempts at humor that come your way).

            What is the difference between a cheetah and a cheater?

            • Alex, adv. diab.
              Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

              A cheetah hunts impalas in the savannah. A cheater buys them at the grocer when noone’s looking.

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                A cheetah is a running cat and a cheater is a cunning rat.

  7. Kharamatha
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    Swedish words equivalent to “bug” are “kryp” and “småkryp”. Literally crawlies and small-crawlies. So yeah.
    Insect is insekt. Beetle is bagge or skalbagge. If you mean hemiptera, it might be best to say that, though I think they are also commonly called “halvvingar”.

    • Dominic
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Perhaps we should say half-wings in English too!

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        No, a halfwing is a hobbit with a lisp.

        • TrineBM
          Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

          E.A. Blair … you are on a roll today! made me LOL three times today. 🙂

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

            Glad to oblige. I’m feeling rather Puckish today.

  8. Sven DiMilo
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    I thought everybody knew that the True Bugs are exclusively members of the Order Homopt…no, Hemopt…Hemapter…Homiptera, NO Hemoptera.
    something like that.
    I thought everybody knew.

    • Microraptor
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I go to school with people who’ve supposedly studied human anatomy and biology but don’t know the difference between collagen and keratin, they think collagen is what makes up human hairs and nails and keratin is found in carrots.

  9. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    I can arrive in any country, find a local entomologist, ask for a hemipteran, and I’d know what to expect.

    Unlike arriving anywhere in the universe and asking for a gin and tonic.

    • TrineBM
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      😀

    • Alex, adv. diab.
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Tere’s a frood how knows where his towel is…

  10. Jim Thomerson
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    And then there are minnows, some of them up to six feet long.

  11. Diane G.
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    “True bug” is a well-established solution to any potential confusion caused by “bug.”


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