Monday, April 23, 2012
Need a wig for your ear?
Reading this morning in the coffee shop, I came across a mention of the earwig. I knew several things about it already: (1) it is not a wig for the ear; (2) it is a bug; (3) I remembered reading about earwigs somewhere in Dickens.
So, I withdrew my trusty Google from its holster and fired away. And, yes, my Dickens memories were right. In chapter 45 of Great Expectations, Pip, spending a night in a fleabag sort of place, says,
What a doleful night! How anxious, how dismal, how long! There was an inhospitable smell in the room, of cold soot and hot dust; and, as I looked up into the corners of the tester [canopy] over my head, I thought what a number of blue-bottle flies from the butchers', and earwigs from the market, and grubs from the country, must be holding on up there, lying by for next summer. This led me to speculate whether any of them ever tumbled down, and then I fancied that I felt light falls on my face -- a disagreeable turn of thought, suggesting other and more objectionable approaches up my back.
And in chap 55 of Nicholas Nickleby, the narrator is describing the Dibabses' cottage and mentions: where the earwigs used to fall into one's tea on a summer evening, and always fell upon their backs and kicked dreadfully ....
He uses the word elsewhere, too ... but you get the idea.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a citation from 1000 A.D.--and tells us that the bug got the name because it supposedly could wiggle its way into the ear--to what end, I'm not certain. Does it crave earwax? Does it like to bang the eardrum slowly? Or dine on gray matter? An odd bit of advice from 1601 in the OED: If an earwig‥be gotten into the eare‥spit into the same, and it will come forth anon. I'm not sure how you're supposed to spit into your own ear, but maybe that's what good friends--or spouses--are for? But I know that if I were an earwig and someone spit on me, I would certainly move right along.
As the picture shows, the earwig is not a prepossessing critter. It seems to have evolved to pinch things. And I never liked being pinched. But it doesn't want to pinch our brains. Or even purloin our hammer, anvil, stirrup. An urban legend website says this: ... there's no dispute among entomologists as to the insect's fabled fondness for entering the human ear and boring into the brain, causing insanity and/or death — it's balderdash. (Balderdash, by the way, was a frothy liquid.)
Earwigs like plants. And other insects. They will hide but not reproduce in your house (that's comforting). They'll pinch you only if you stick your finger between their pincers to see if they'll pinch you. But they won't break your skin. So give it a try.
And--this is cool: Unlike most other mommy insects, the mommy earwig cares for her eggs (she licks them, changes their positions) and for her young.
They fly very badly. They prefer to hop aboard other moving objects.
A few final earwig-ian notes: The OED records that the word has a metaphorical meaning, too: An ear whisperer, flatterer, parasite. (I wonder: What other kind of whisperer is there? Can you whisper into someone's nose? I guess.) The word can be a verb, too: it can mean to pester or to influence or to insinuate oneself into the confidence of (a person).
Need an adjective? There is one--earwiggy, which means infested by earwigs or resembling an earwig. So in your next novel, you could write: The clerk had an earwiggy aspect.
And finally--an obsolete word from the 16th century that, by now, surely applies to me: earwig-brain: one who has a ‘maggot’ or craze in his brain. Like wanting to know what an earwig is.
So ... have you had enough ear-wiggery for one day? (I made that one up.)