bedbug / bed bug

In the midst of the NYC Bedbug Panic of 2010 — see Tara Parker-Pope, “The Curious World of Bedbug Research” in the Health section of the NYT blog 8/30/10 and the full story, “They Crawl, They Bite, They Baffle Scientists”, by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in  Science Times — came two comments in the blog on spelling:

[comment #19] I understand that entymologists refer to them as bed bugs (2 words) not bedbugs, as the author of this article uses. Apparently if the animal is an actual bug, it should be 2 words. Dragonfly is an example of an insect that is not really a fly, so they merge it into one word.

FROM TPP — Yes we have heard about this from a few readers. The Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which is our definitive source when something’s not specifically addressed by the NYT stylebook, spells it as one word. So for now, it’s bedbugs in the New York Times. But I agree the argument for bedbugs as two words is compelling. [AMZ: there is no argument here, only assertion.]

(Larry Horn on ADS-L waggishly suggested that entymologists constituted an instance of folk entomology. Certainly, some confusion between entomology and etymology is common, common enough to merit an entry in Brians. The orthographic combo entymology is also reasonably common, as you can see from a Google search — apparently as an error for entomology.)

[comment #74] Bed bugs is TWO words – not one. The general rule for writing out common names of insects is as follows. If the insect name is a misnomer (e.g., the dragonfly is NOT a fly and neither is a damselfly), then the whole name is written as one word. If it is not a misnomer, then it is written as two words (e.g., house fly, which is a real fly). The bed bug is a “true” bug and therefore is two words.

When Wilson Gray, incredulous, reported these items on the American Dialect Society mailing list, others chimed in to say that they’d never heard of the “rule” either and to offer counterexamples to it, from the insect domain and beyond. And now the “rule” has returned, in a discussion of bees and wasps in the past few days: is it bumble bee (as the Wikipedia entry has it, presumably on the grounds that these insects are bees) or bumblebee (as the Wiktionary entry has it, though it offers bumble bee and bumble-bee as alternatives)?

Back to bedbugs (and horseflies). Michael Quinion looked at the bug and fly issue at some length; here’s his posting on his World Wide Words site on 9/11/10:

I doubt that one person in a thousand has heard of this supposed rule, but other comments on the item argued the same point and they’re supported by discussions in numerous books on insect classification. A professor of entomology e-mailed me from South Africa to confirm that he had taught the rule to his students for the past 35 years.

The idea is to separate what are often called the “true flies” in the scientific order Diptera from other insects commonly but unscientifically called flies, and to draw a distinction between the Hemiptera or “true bugs” and bugs of other kinds. This is one reference of many:

Because of the aerial prowess of insects in general, a great many nonflies bear “fly” as part of the name, such as butterfly, firefly, stonefly, and mayfly. Notice that the names are spelled as all one word. True flies are described by two words, such as mydas fly, robber fly, and soldier fly. [The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, by Eric R Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, 2007.]

Various books likewise argue [AMZ: no, they don’t argue anything; they just flatly maintain] that the same rule should apply to the bugs… Technically, the true bugs, such as the bedbug (or bed bug), are insects with mouthparts that are modified for piercing and sucking.

According to the rule, true bugs such as assassin bugs and shield bugs should have their names written as two words, but those that aren’t should be written as one, such as pillbug or ladybug …

Fly and bug are both ancient words of wide applicability and imprecise meaning that predate attempts at classifying the living world. Fly is by far the older; bug is recorded only from the seventeenth century as a generic term for various beetles or grubs. Nobody is sure where it came from, though a connection with the ancient sense of an object of terror that we retain in bugbear is suggested; the link might be directly with the bedbug, the first insect to be called a bug, which seems to have become a pest at around this time. The insect didn’t begin to be called a bedbug (at first as two words or as bed-bug) until the latter part of the eighteenth century.

The rule about inserting spaces in insect common names seems to be a modern creation, an informal way of using the spelling of these names as an aide memoire to distinguish Diptera or Hemiptera species from other little beasties. It’s highly unlikely ever to affect the usual spelling of bedbug, since the tendency in modern English is to amalgamate multi-word terms into single words, not split them apart. The spelling has long since become standard for everybody except professional entomologists.

To re-cap: entomologists pressed the ordinary English words bug and fly into service as technical terms, using the terms true bug and true fly, when necessary, to distinguish technical talk from ordinary talk. (Note: the adjective true in these names is itself a technical term.) Unfortunately, when there’s ambiguity between ordinary and technical uses of words, many people — including the experts — are inclined to treat the technical uses as the “true”, “correct”, ones.

In the case at hand, this has led the experts to mess with common practice, by insisting that ordinary English terms should be spelled so as to reflect the technical distinction. This is to treat ordinary terms as if they were stand-in technical terms.

As far as I can see, only entomologists have engaged in such meddling; ornithologists, ichthyologists, and other specialists seem to have just lived with vagaries of conventional spelling (solid, hyphenated, or separated) for the creatures they study. Cowbirds, hummingbirds, blackbirds, bluebirds, and many more are all birds, but their names are spelled solid (or, for a few of them, sometimes, hyphenated), not separated. Similarly for dogfish, catfish, monkfish, bluefish, etc. Rock lobsters aren’t (technically) lobsters, nor are rock shrimp (technically) shrimp, though their names are spelled separated. And so on.

Now to bees and wasps. They came up in ADS-L through reports of speakers who use bee to name the higher (folk) taxon covering both bees and wasps — so including yellowjackets, hornets, honeybees, and bumblebees, but excluding ants, flies, flying termites, and mosquitoes. To judge from the comments, this seems to be an American thing; Damien Hall reported having to get accustomed to the usage when he came to the United States for graduate school. (Not all Americans use bee this way. I don’t.)

In any case, it would be nice to have a name for this higher-level category, of stinging Hymenoptera.

Even without it, the world of wasps and bees is a terminological hornet’s nest. Here’s Wikipedia wrestling with the wasps:

The term wasp is typically defined as any insect of the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita that is neither a bee nor an ant.

… A much narrower and simpler but popular definition of the term wasp is any member of the aculeate family Vespidae, which includes (among others) the genera known in North America as yellowjackets (Vespula and Dolichovespula) and hornets (Vespa); in many countries outside of the Western Hemisphere, the vernacular usage of wasp is even further restricted to apply strictly to yellowjackets (e.g., the “common wasp”).

OED2 goes into more detail:

In popular language, any insect of the genus Vespa; chiefly applied to V. vulgaris, the Common Wasp [or yellowjacket], and such other species as are not readily distinguishable from this; sometimes taken to include the Hornet, V. crabro, which resembles the Common Wasp, but is larger and has a more powerful sting. The obvious characteristics of the genus are the alternate rings of black and yellow on the abdomen, the narrow stalk or petiole by which the abdomen is attached to the thorax, the fully developed wings, and the formidable sting (which, however, is peculiar to the females and the workers or imperfect females). In scientific language applied generally to two divisions of hymenopterous insects, the Diploptera or true wasps, and the Fossores or digger wasps.

The true wasps (Diploptera) are divided into three families; (1) Vespidæ, to which the common wasp belongs; (2) Eumenidæ; and (3) Masaridæ.

On to bees. The short story from Wikipedia:

Bees are flying insects closely related to wasps and ants, and are known for their role in pollination and for producing honey and beeswax. Bees are a monophyletic lineage within the superfamily Apoidea, presently classified by the unranked taxon name Anthophila. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven to nine recognized families


Bees, like ants, are a specialized form of wasp.

Sigh. (Ordinary English doesn’t have a label for wasps, bees, and ants taken together. Another unlabeled taxon in ordinary language.)

In common usage, bee is often used to refer specifically to honeybees (or, as Wikipedia puts it, honey bees). This is the first definition that OED2 gives:

A well-known insect, or rather genus of insects, of the Hymenopterous order, living in societies composed of one queen, or perfect female, a small number of males or ‘drones,’ and an indefinite number of undeveloped females or ‘neuters’ (which are the workers), all having four wings; they produce wax, and collect honey, which they store up for food in the winter.

But then there’s a wider sense, according to which bumblebees (known earlier as humble bees) are bees (but not bee bees):

Applied to a large group of allied insects, chiefly with a distinguishing epithet, e.g. Humble Bee, Mason Bee, Carpenter Bee, etc.; in scientific use, including all insects of the Melliferous or honey-gathering division of the Aculeate (or sting-bearing) Hymenoptera, and comprising two families, the Social Bees or Apidae, and Solitary Bees or Andrænidæ.

So, if you’re a pedantic entomologist using this wider definition of bee, it’s bumble bee, like bed bug. And that’s where we came in.


5 Responses to “bedbug / bed bug”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    The “rule” shows up in the plant world—Douglas-fir for example, in this case with a hyphen, though I’ve seen Douglasfir as well.

  2. jbl Says:

    I don’t think the comparison to fish and birds applies. If a lay person points to an animal and says “That’s a fish (or a bird)” there is a high probability that the statement is correct and that the ichthyologist (or ornithologist) would agree. The lay person who points and says “That’s a bug (or fly)” is much less likely to be correct as far as the entomologist is concerned, especially in the case of the bug. (Even if he or she says “insect” it could be a tick or spider or mite, none of which are from class Insecta.)

    I won’t comment on the “bee” issue, as I am the child of an entomologist who specialized in pollination and apis mellifera (honeybees) and later studied various types of wild bees. My exposure decades ago to insect classification and Hymenoptera in particular has informed my usage of common terms in some non-standard ways that I haven’t yet figured out.

    [Non-sequitor: The fly discussion reminded me of a completely unrelated question that has bothered me for years: the (what seems to me) British phrase “common or garden” vs the (what seems to me) American phrase “common garden-variety”. I like the former, but mostly hear the latter. I’m reminded of this because it is my impression that this was originally used in reference to “a common or garden (house) fly”.]

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You say: “I don’t think the comparison to fish and birds applies. If a lay person points to an animal and says “That’s a fish (or a bird)” there is a high probability that the statement is correct and that the ichthyologist (or ornithologist) would agree. The lay person who points and says “That’s a bug (or fly)” is much less likely to be correct as far as the entomologist is concerned, especially in the case of the bug.”

      But the point at issue isn’t people’s ability to classify creatures, but whether the punctuation of the *names* of the creatures conveys a classification. To exponents of bed bug etc., solid spellings of the form Xfish and Xbird convey, usually but not always incorrectly, that the creatures aren’t fish or birds. (And conversely, the separated spelling camass lily conveys, to these people, that the plant is a lily, which it is not.)

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Google+, Victor Steinbok notes that the OED’s taxonomic labels are outdated, which is true; they are probably about a hundred years old. Alas, biological classifications change fairly frequently (sometimes only by trading old labels in for new ones, but usually by altering the membership in taxa), and are subject to dispute. What stays constant in all of this is the imperfect fit between biological taxa and folk taxa.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: