An issue that invariably surfaces when entomologists interact with non-entomologists is the “bug problem“.

I don’t mean pest infestation troubles. Rather, I mean that entomologists use a different definition of the word “bug” than the general English-speaking populace, with confusing results.

To most people, a “bug” is any small crawly animal. Like a spider, or a centipede, or maybe a chihuahua. To an entomologist, a “bug” is specifically a member of a particular lineage of insects, the Hemiptera. A cockroach is not a Hemipteran, so it can’t be bug. Neither is a beetle, or a spider.

I bring this up because of a comment over at Jerry Coyne’s blog:

In ordinary usage, “bug” applies not just to insects but to arthropods of all kinds, including lobsters and crawfish.

If the argument is that the technical meaning came first, and only later did the word come into popular usage, I don’t think that’s the case. According to Wiktionary, “bug” derives from “bugge” meaning “beetle”, at least a century before Linnaeus.

I suppose on some level scientists are entitled to assign narrow technical meaning to common words. But if such assignments needlessly defy common sense (as in the assertion that cockroaches are not bugs), doesn’t that tend to undermine public trust in science?

(Gregory Kusnick)

Is my restricted use of “bug” against common sense?

Well, no. It’s the most natural thing ever. For me, and for other entomologists. That entomologists narrowly circumscribe the word isn’t a problem per se. Rather, it is indicative of the fact that we buggy folks in our little buggy subculture have a different notion of what is and isn’t common sense. This is trivially true of any specialized field. I’m pretty sure a quantum physicist holds ideas as “common sense” that are simply loony.

Common sense is objectively meaningless, anyway. The better issue is whether “bug” should be considered a technical term.

And I unequivocally think it should not. “Bug” is a common name. What’s more, it is a common name for both the lay public and for insect specialists. That it refers to different organisms in the two cultural contexts does not change the fact that it is vernacular in both spheres.

Common names are particular to individual cultures and local contexts. That is their point. The beauty of common names is their fluidity. They are dynamic, ever-changing, adaptable. Vocabularies arise to suit people’s needs. Entomologists find a narrow meaning for Bug useful. Non-entomologists don’t. And that is fine.

What’s spectacularly unnecessary about the bug debate is that we’ve already got a standardized international entomological lexicon. Researchers the world over, speaking hundreds of different native tongues, all use the technical term “Hemiptera” to refer to the same group of insects. Scientific nomenclature- though perhaps unappreciated-  is one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment. I can arrive in any country, find a local entomologist, ask for a hemipteran, and I’d know what to expect.

So I don’t have a problem with people loosely throwing about the term “bug”. That’s what it’s for, after all. If there’s a need to be technical, well, we’ve got Hemiptera.