Etymology
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bug (n.)

"insect, beetle," 1620s (earliest reference is to bedbugs), of unknown origin, probably (but not certainly) from or influenced by Middle English bugge "something frightening, scarecrow" (late 14c.), a word or meaning that has become obsolete since the "insect" sense arose, except in bugbear (1570s) and bugaboo (q.v.).

The Middle English word probably is connected with Scottish bogill "goblin, bugbear," or obsolete Welsh bwg "ghost, goblin" (compare Welsh bwgwl "threat," earlier "fear," Middle Irish bocanách "supernatural being"). Some speculate that these words are from a root meaning "goat" (see buck (n.1)) and represent originally a goat-like specter. Compare also bogey (n.1) and Puck. Middle English Compendium compares Low German bögge, böggel-mann "goblin." The sense shift perhaps was by influence of Old English -budda, used in compounds for "beetle" (compare Low German budde "louse, grub," Middle Low German buddech "thick, swollen").

The name of bug is given in a secondary sense to insects considered as an object of disgust and horror, and in modern English is appropriated to the noisome inhabitants of our beds, but in America is used as the general appellation of the beetle tribe .... A similar application of the word signifying an object dread to creeping things is very common. [Hensleigh Wedgwood, "A Dictionary of English Etymology," 1859]

The meaning "defect in a machine" (1889) may have been coined c. 1878 by Thomas Edison (perhaps with the notion of an insect getting into the works). In compounds, the meaning "person obsessed by an idea" (as in firebug "arsonist") is from 1841, perhaps from notion of persistence. The colloquial sense of "microbe, germ" is from 1919.

Bugs "crazy" is from c. 1900. Bug juice as a slang name for drink is from 1869, originally "bad whiskey." The 1811 slang dictionary has bug-hunter "an upholsterer." Bug-word "word or words meant to irritate and vex" is from 1560s.

bug (v.1)

"to bulge, protrude," 1872, originally of eyes, perhaps from a humorous or dialect mispronunciation of bulge (v.). Related: Bugged; bugging. As an adjective, bug-eyed is recorded from 1872; it was so frequently used of space creatures in mid-20c. science fiction that the initialism (acronym) BEM for bug-eyed monster was current by 1953.

bug (v.2)

"to annoy, irritate," 1949, perhaps first in swing music slang, probably from bug (n.) and a reference to insect pests. Related: Bugged; bugging.

bug (v.3)

"to scram, skedaddle," 1953, of uncertain origin, perhaps related to bug (v.2), and compare bug off. Bug out (n.) "precipitous retreat" (1951) is from the Korean War.

bug (v.4)

"equip with a concealed microphone," 1949, earlier "equip with an alarm system," 1919, underworld slang, probably a reference to bug (n.1). Bug (n.) "concealed microphone" is from 1946. Related: Bugged; bugging.

updated on October 25, 2022

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