• earwig •
eer-wig • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. [Noun] If this seems like a silly place to put a wig, you're right: an earwig is an elongated insect with pincerlike appendages on its rear (see picture). 2. [Verb] To catch someone's ear, to capture their attention and attempt to influence them.
Notes: In a 2007 blog posting I discussed words that bear no resemblance to their meaning; today's Good Word is rather obviously one of them. Earwigs got their name from an old assumption that they crawled into the brain through the ear and caused insanity. Don't laugh: 200 years ago it was as good an explanation of mental disease as any.
In Play: Earwigs are just small household pests: "I've been told I have earwigs in the house: should I call an exterminator or a wig-maker?" The phrases "put a bug in your ear" and "put a bee in your bonnet" are extensions of the verbal use of today's Good Word: "Rumor has it that President Bush still earwigs Carl Rove on election matters."
Word History: Today's Good Word has never been related to the noun wig as we use it today. Rather, the wig in earwig is the same as that in wiggle, for in Old English today's word was earwicga, based on eare "ear" + wicga "insect". Wicga originally meant "wiggler". When English lost this word in the grinding gears of history, speakers realigned today's word with a familiar one by folk etymology. It is based on a Proto-Indo-European root that referred to travel by vehicle, as we see in words like wagon and way, which also come from it. The W became a V in Latin, leading to Latin vehere "to carry", forefather of our vehicle, and via "road", which we use today as a preposition, as to travel to New York via (by way of) Philadelphia.