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Insects on the Tongue

ant, bee, beetle, bug, butterfly, cocoon, flea, fly, gnat, louse, moth, nit

Not counting bacteria, insects make up at least half of the millions of living species on Earth. Except in the oceans, insects are everywhere. Some pollinate flowers, some scavenge refuse. But given that they also bite, sting, eat our crops, riddle our houses, carry diseases, and otherwise exemplify all the things that make life miserable, it’s surprising that they haven’t infested our language more than they have. Nevertheless, some insect words—ant, bee, beetle, bug, butterfly, cocoon, flea, fly, gnat, louse, moth, nit—have crept into our speech and are used figuratively to describe our unease or, occasionally, some of our ordinary activities.

Some examples of common usages are given below. The quotations are derived from the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve frequently modified them for the modern ear but retained the original dates so you can see how long ago the expressions were used in more-or-less their modern senses.

Antsy: restless, impatient, eager, agitated: “I got antsy when he didn’t show up on time” (1950). Having ants in one’s pants: “Some of the boys sure got ants in their pants over her” (1930).

The bee’s knees: the height of excellence; equivalent to the gnat’s hind leg, the cat’s whiskers, and the flea’s eyebrows: “Molly, you’re the bees knees, and that’s a fact!” (1923). To have a bee in one’s bonnet: to be obsessed with some fancy, whim, eccentricity, or perverse idea: “He was a great man, even though he had a bee in his bonnet over the use of opium” (1845).

Beetle brains (also beetle-brained, beetle-headed), contemptuous epithet for ignorance or stupidity: “Old beetle-brains can’t get anything right” (1593). Beetle-browed: having shaggy, bushy, or prominent eyebrows; scowling, sullen, surly: “He was blabber-lipped, bottle-nosed, and beetle-browed” (1591).

Bug: expressions rarely refer to anything pleasant, but here is one: snug as a bug in a rug. Most expressions have to do with being small, inconspicuous, defective, offensive, or irritating: Speak in whispers, this room might be bugged. Let me put a bug in your ear. See if you can find the bug in this program. Don’t bug me!: “That critic of mine is just a bug, his stench is more offensive than his sting” (1771).

Butterfly: Some butterfly expressions were more common in earlier times. A butterfly kiss was one in which one’s eyelashes are fluttered against the cheek of the other. A butterfly-bow or -tie was one tied with a loop and end on each side. To butterfly was to flirt, without serious intentions: “He was not serious about Marianne, he was only butterflying” (1893). To be a butterfly was to be a vain, light-headed, inconstant person: “Now, young ladies, always behave decorously, so you won’t appear to be butterflies one day and slatterns the next” (1767); this sense is still found in the phrase social butterfly. Also current is the butterfly stroke in swimming; the butterfly effect, the idea that a small and apparently insignificant cause can have large consequences, as when, for example, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Los Angeles might eventually generate a hurricane in the mid-Atlantic; and butterflies in the stomach: “I get butterflies in the stomach before taking off” (1943); “ ‘I always have butterflies when I open Parliament,’ Queen Elizabeth II remarked” (1959).

Cocoon: to be in a cocoon, to be insulated from surrounding influences: “The mind can weave itself warmly in the cocoon of its own thoughts” (1870). To cocoon, to coat in a plastic or resin sprayed on aeronautic and other military equipment before storage: “The engines arrived in good condition after being cocooned at Davis-Monthan Air Force base” (1947).

Flea: figurative uses refer to being small, active, infested with fleas, or in a poor state: flea-bag, flea-bitten, flea market, as fit as a flea. “You’d be better off at some flea-bag hotel” (1839). “Flea markets sell small second-hand items that are likely to have gathered fleas” (1922). “Looking forward only to a flea-bitten fate” (1917). “Don’t worry, I’ll soon be fit as a flea, and ready as a flea for blood” (1889).

Fly: a fly in the ointment, a fly on the wall, to drink with the flies, there are no flies on me (you, him, her, them), gadfly, fly-weight (boxing). A fly in the ointment was originally just an inconvenience of some sort: “A poor relation staying beyond his welcome is a frog in your chamber, a fly in your ointment” (1828), but later became an objection that is not readily noticed: “The one fly in the ointment of their commercials is the exorbitant shipping fee” (1928). To drink with the flies is an Australianism, meaning to drink alone: “The men’s natural antipathy to drinking with the flies is putting a strain on the commanding officer’s supply of whiskey” (1940). There are no flies on him (her); i.e., he’s astute and clever enough that you won’t put anything over on him (her); the expression may come from observing that an active cow has no flies settling on it: “They ain’t no flies on yore little sister, that’s for damn sure!” (1900).

Gnat: anything small. To strain at a gnat, to have difficulty accepting something trivial: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (1531, Bible, Matthew 23:24). See also “the bee’s knees” above.

A hornet’s nest: unforeseen or unnecessary trouble: “I didn’t expect to stir up such a hornet’s nest with my anti-monarchical speech” (1740).

Louse: a scornful epithet for a despicable human being: “Why do you tolerate your butler, that louse?” (1901). Lousy: teeming with, crawling with, abundantly supplied with: “He was lousy with money, and dared any man to face him” (1843). Also a general term of abuse: dirty, filthy, mean, contemptible, inferior, poor, bad: “A lousy juggler can deceive thee” (Chaucer, 1386); “You’ll discredit me before strangers for a lousy, paltry sum of money?” (Dryden, 1669); “Oh great god of the machine, what lousy archangels and angels you have to surround yourself with!” (D. H. Lawrence, 1930). As a verb (with up), to louse up, to spoil: “Don’t louse up the show” (1938).

Moth, an insignificant person (no longer in common usage): “A man is but a moth under the finger of God” (1693). Moth-eaten, figuratively: ragged, shabby, old, antiquated: “I’ll consider whatever is not stuffed full of old moth-eaten words” (1551); “The old system is moth-eaten, and kings have had a severe lesson” (1809); “He was looking rather more moth-eaten than when I had seen him last” (1934).

Nit, literally, the egg of a louse; figuratively, something or someone small or insignificant: “And his Page, Ah heavens, a most pathetical nit” (Shakespeare, 1598); Nit-picking, quibbling over minor details: “Too much time has been spent nitpicking over Japan's imports of foreign goods” (1982); Nitwit, a person of small wit or intelligence: “After her trip to Virginia, Miss Morton was of the opinion that Chicago men were nitwits” (1914).

Thanks to Diana for the ant-reminder.

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