Monday, March 18, 2013

Thanks to the bogeyman

The bogeyman may not be real, but his contributions to the English language are. I was surprised in reading Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon at just how much we owe to the bogeyman, that mythical creature feared by generations of children who believe he comes out from under their beds after the lights go out.

Forsyth reports that a man named Dr. Thomas Brown couldn't get a song called The Bogey Man out of his head while he played a round of golf. He played poorly that day and so, in jest, blamed the bogeyman. This was in 1890. By the 1940s, a bogey had become a popular term meaning one over par.

The use of the word bug to refer to insects is believed to be a shortened form of bogeyman. Some people who woke in the morning covered with insect bites called them bedbugs in reference to the bogeyman. Later other kinds of insects also became known as bugs, Forsyth says.

Before bugs, there were bugaboos, a popular term for bogeymen. A bugaboo was first a criminal slang term for a policeman. Later it came to refer to problems of any sort.

Thomas Edison is credited with first calling a mechanical problem a bug. Nobody knows if there was actually an insect that was the source of Edison's problem or if he just used the term bug in a figurative sense. In any case, we continue to refer to bugs in faulty machinery to this day.

When we're sick, we say we have caught a bug. A wiretap is commonly called a bug. We used to tell our little brothers and sisters to stop bugging us. In short, when something annoying happens, we blame the bogeyman.

Forsyth doesn't say whether Bugs Bunny is related to the bogeyman, but I'll bet Elmer Fudd thinks so.

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