words: BUG

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The Independent Online
THE millennium bug could not only impoverish pensioners and close down hospitals; it is also a danger to shipping, or so I read in my Independent last week, under the headline "Channel Faces 'Millennium Bug' Disaster". No doubt the situation is being monitored by the Millennium Computer Bug Task Force, a title (the Germans would have made a single word out of it) that takes the small word bug away from its slightly nerdish associations and confers on it the dignity of official recognition.

Its meaning in this context was still classed under "slang uses" in the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary, which cited an article of 100 years earlier from one of the OED's favourite sources, the Pall Mall Gazette. "Mr Edison", said a contributor in 1889, "had been up the two previous nights discovering a 'bug' in his phonograph, an expression ... implying that some imaginary insect had secreted itself inside."

However bug didn't start life as an insect. It was originally a Welsh word for a hobgoblin - surely the same "bogey-man" which nannies used to say would get children if they didn't look out, and which survives in bugbear and presumably bugaboo. The two meanings overlapped for a while in the 17th century, after which the "insect" meaning more or less took over, but the ghost of the old Welsh word can still be found in the verb - not as applied to bugged conversations, which obviously involve the sort of creature envisaged in the Pall Mall Gazette, but in questions like "What's bugging you?" Though the OED puts this under the "insect" definition, I should have thought it really meant "What's haunting you?" so ought to go under the earlier one, as should the noun in words like "fire-bug" and "jitterbug", such people being haunted by an obsession.

I could be wrong - obsessive or disturbed people have always been said to have bees in their bonnets, and "ants in their pants" is an American version of much the same thing, so perhaps the insects have it. The millennium bug, of course, is a germ.

Nicholas Bagnall