Bah! Humbug! I doubt if there are many people who can’t identify that phrase.
It’s not a term that Dickens invented. The actual etymology of the word “humbug” is somewhat up in the air. But there have been two hypotheses suggested to explain its origins.
The word first appeared in 1751 as a term popularized by the nobs at Cambridge University. One line of thinking would have us believe that it’s Old Norse in origin and represents the combination of the words hym (night) and bugge (spirits). Since the vikings began overrunning most of Britain in the latter part of the eighth century, around a thousand years earlier, the word would have had to remain hidden in the English language for quite a long time before it emerged at King’s College.
Another explanation (and as an entomologist, not an etymologist, one I like better) says that it means a humming insect. One that makes a lot of noise but doesn’t really accomplish anything. This fits in much better with Scrooge’s fiscal philosophy than does the word’s supposed viking origin.
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Humbug got me thinking about how much insects have impacted our language and culture. Barely a day goes by, that I don’t hear or read an insect-related word or phrase.
So, I sat down and wrote out all of the terms that I could think of that relate to insects. I’ve no doubt missed a lot of the idioms. As brilliANT as I am, even I can’t think of everything.
Below are the expressions. I restricted them to those I remembered from North America and Great Britain. I thought of a lot more from my travels around the world but I didn’t have the space to fit them into this week’s column.
Once you’re finished, see if you can think of some others that I left out.
▪ Being antsy
▪ Ants to honey
▪ Ants in his pants
▪ The constant creeping of ants will wear away stone
▪ None preaches better than the ant and she says nothing.
▪ Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise
▪ A bee’s kiss
▪ Busy as a bee
▪ Bee-stung lips
▪ The bees knees
▪ A bee in your bonnet
▪ Sweet as honey to a bee
▪ A dead bee makes no honey
▪ Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee
▪ It’s the roving bee that gathers honey
▪ No bees, no honey; no work, no money
▪ If a bee didn’t have its sting, it couldn’t keep its honey
▪ He who would gather honey must bear the sting of bees
▪ Beetle brained
▪ Fireflies shine only when in motion.
▪ Like a duck on a June bug (scarab beetle)
▪ The rose has its thorn; the peach its worm (weevil larva).
▪ Bug out
▪ Bugger off
▪ Don’t bug me
▪ Computer bug
▪ A bug in your ear
▪ Crazy as a bedbug
▪ A bug in the system
▪ Cute as a bug’s ear
▪ A bug up your “nose”
▪ Snug as a bug in a rug
▪ A bug on the windshield of life
▪ Big black bugs bleed blue black blood. Baby black bugs bleed blue blood.
BUTTERFLIES & MOTHS
▪ Social butterfly
▪ Butterfly effect
▪ Moth to a flame
▪ Butterflying around
▪ Butterflies are free
▪ Happiness is a butterfly
▪ Butterflies store no honey
▪ Butterflies in your stomach
▪ Flea circus
▪ Flea market
▪ Fleabag hotel
▪ Flea-bitten dog
▪ A flea in your ear
▪ Even good dogs have fleas
▪ The fatter the flea, the leaner the dog
▪ If you lie down with dogs, you’ll arise with fleas
▪ The dog in its doghouse barks at its fleas. The dog that hunts does not feel them.
▪ Fly specks
▪ Skeeter time
▪ In a gnat’s eye
▪ A fly on the wall
▪ Lord of the flies
▪ Wouldn’t hurt a fly
▪ Like flies to honey
▪ A fly in the ointment
▪ As flies to wanton boys
▪ Eagles don’t catch flies
▪ Said the spider to the fly
▪ Like flies to “fresh manure”
▪ A shut mouth catches no flies
▪ Flies come to feasts uninvited
▪ You can’t kill a fly with a spear
▪ Do what we can, summer will have its flies
▪ Which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel
▪ Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
▪ You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar (vinegar flies excepted).
GRASSHOPPERS & CRICKETS
▪ A grasshopper mind
▪ A cricket on the hearth
▪ Knee-high to a grasshopper
▪ The grasshopper and the ant
▪ Until the cricket sings, it isn’t summer
▪ You don’t teach a grasshopper to jump
▪ Riding an elephant to catch grasshoppers
▪ Feeling lousy
▪ A lousy situation
▪ Don’t be a louse
▪ A louse in the cabbage is better than no meat at all
▪ Ticked off
▪ Full as a tick
▪ Tight as a tick
▪ Stuck tight as a tick
▪ Mad as a hornet
▪ Stirred up a hornet’s nest
WORMS (these can be caterpillars, beetle larvae or a whole host of immature insect species)
▪ The conqueror worm
▪ The worm turns
I’ll leave you now with a quote from a man of many parts, Right Honourable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, KG.
“We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.