Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Episode 94: Earworm Show Notes

 Click on Read More for the full show notes.

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 94: Earworm

Record Date: January 4, 2021

Air Date: January 6, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week’s phrase is “Earworm”


An “earworm”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is  “A catchy tune, piece of music, or (occasionally) phrase which persistently stays in a person's mind, esp. to the point of irritation”

The term “earworm” is a relatively recent iteration of this concept, arising in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The first usage as an English word seems to be from a 1979 book by Desmond Bagley called Flyaway. On page 181 the narrator is marching through what seems like a never-ending desert when he says:


I fell into a blind, mindless rhythm and a chant was created in my mind - what the Germans call an “earworm” -something that goes round and round in your head and you can’t get rid of it. 

One bloody foot before the next bloody foot. One bloody dune after the next bloody dune. One bloody foot before the next bloody foot. One bloody dune after the next bloody dune. One bloody… It went on and on and on…

End quote

We also find it in Contemporary Perceptions of Language: Interdisciplinary Dimensions from 1982. This scholarly work was edited by Heidi Byrnes, but the quote is by Haj Ross of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - or as we in the States would call it - MIT. 


i find some poem which 

for who knows what reason

comes into my blood 

it just knocks me over 

and i want to find out why

because essentially that's magic

a poet can do magic

a poet does something to the words which you and i use in our everyday interactions

and puts them there and they become what they call in german an 'ohrwurm' 

an ear worm 

you can't get it out of your head

End quote

In both of those examples, it was used by saying how it was used in German. The German “ohrwurm” would translate to earwig. Shauna, have you ever heard of an earwig?

Well, an earwig is any insect in the order Dermaptera. The common earwig has a reputation for causing damage to foliage, flowers, and various crops. 

The 1966 edition of the  Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology suggests the “ear” portion of the common name is due to an old wives’ tale that earwigs burrowed into the brains of humans through the ear and laid their eggs there. They don’t, of course. The wig comes from the Old English word, spelled wicga, which means for insect or beetle. 

And in German, the earwig is also an insect. But according to the OED, the German language has used “ohrvurm” to mean the same as our figurative use of earworm since 1961 or maybe even earlier. So the translation that Desmond Bagley and Haj Ross used is loan translation where it is borrowed from German by literal word-for-word translation, which is called a “calque”.

But as usual, the truth resists simplicity. Earworm has been an English word since the late 1500s. And as Merriam Webster points out in one of their word history articles,


The English word is actually centuries old and was another name for the earwig, which got its name from the belief (happily, very wrong) that they crawled into people's ears. Hence, earworm. This belief was widespread and old: it shows up in English over 1,000 years ago, and we know that the belief was all over the European continent by looking at other languages' names for this creature. Danish, Swedish, medieval Dutch, medieval Latin, medieval French—all of the names for the earwig in these languages refer to the ear. German, too: the earwig is called an Ohrwurm.

End Quote

I did find several references to an ancient medicinal usage for the insect order Dermaptera. They were dried and put in the ear to cure many ear ailments. And while that could be why the association with ear, it’s more likely that they used it for the ear because of the like-for-like principle of old-timey medicine. The like-for-like medicinal approach would say, “this bug crawls in your ear, so let's kill it, turn it into a powder, and then put it in your ear to cure your deafness”. It might also be the same things that says “your body is hot, so let’s burn parts of your skin to get rid of the heat cause like cures like”. But that’s more the Sawbones podcast territory, so we’ll leave those things to them. 

In the US, we stopped using “earworm” to refer to the earwig in the late 1800s because we started having a problem with a moth larva that was found on ears of corn. This larva looked like a worm or a grub, and since it was found in ears of corn it became known as an earworm. The Library of Congress catalogues newspapers prior to 1963 and every example I found of earworm from 1900 to 1963 referred to the corn earworm. 

But as the Merriam Webster articles says:


Meanwhile, in Germany, the parallel term Ohrwurm still referred to the earwig, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, those inventive Germans began applying the name for this pest which supposedly burrowed into your ear // to a piece of music that wouldn't get out of your head…

End quote

We heard two examples from 1979 and 1982, respectively, of earworm being used from the German earlier, 

Merriam Webster continues...


...We took the meaning of Ohrwurm and applied it to the English word that matched the German one word for word: earworm. Though this use of earworm first showed up in English in the early 1980s, it was popularized by Stephen King

End quote

The article that Merriam Webster references is still live, so I’ll read the relevant portion. This was from the Entertainment Weekly article by Stephen King dated April 17, 2009:


A couple of months ago, I woke up at three in the morning, thirsty as hell (probably because I’d donated blood the day before), and shambled into the bathroom for a glass of water. I was 20 percent awake at best. And as I turned on the faucet, I realized I was singing this: ”They say a man should always dress/For the job he wants/So why’m I dressed up like a pirate/In this restaurant?”

Dear God, I thought, I’ve been infected by an earworm.

My friend the Longhair says that’s what you call songs that burrow into your head and commence chewing your brains. The dreaded earworm can turn even a great song into something you’d run from, screaming at the top of your lungs. If only you could.

End Quote

I checked the Google Trends page for earworm and it appears there was a first spike of searches for earworm beginning in November/Decemberof 2009, so maybe the buzz created by Stephen King’s article 7 months earlier in April caused it. Unless someone remembers some other pop-cultural phenomenon happening late fall of 2009, I’ll just let Merriam Webster have this one. 

And before we head to the break, I just wanted to mention a few examples of literary works that described something like an earworm even though we didn’t have a word for it just yet.

  • Mark Twain's 1876 story "A Literary Nightmare" (also known as "Punch, Brothers, Punch") is about a jingle that one can get rid of only by transferring it to another person.

  • In 1943 Henry Kuttner published the short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" about a song engineered to damage the Nazi war effort, culminating in Adolf Hitler being unable to continue a speech.

  • In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man, the protagonist uses a jingle specifically crafted to be a catchy, irritating nuisance as a tool to block mind readers from reading his mind.

  • In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody – one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller, Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the brain." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.

A Quick Thank You


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Pop Culture and Modern Examples

I do want to ask you about your own earworms, but first let’s look at a little science.

In 2016, Dr Kelly Jakubowski et all published an article called Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict

Involuntary Musical Imagery 


This was published in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. In it her and her team studied why certain songs get stuck in our heads. She called this phenomenon Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI. 

A couple of key findings from the study:

A songs popularity did increase memory associations and there were melodic features that played a part in whether or not it would be an earworm. 

Dr. Jakubowsi said


“Our findings show that you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content. This could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards.

These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple or in the chorus of Bad Romance by Lady Gaga.”

End Quote

The study also noted that in addition to a common melodic shape, the other crucial ingredient in the earworm formula is an unusual interval structure in the song such as some unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than you would expect to hear in the “average pop song”. The instrumental riff of My Sharona by the Knack and In The Mood by Glen Miller both have this unusual interval structure.

Dr Jakubowski continues...


“We already know that recent and frequent exposure to a song makes it more likely to get stuck in your head and people who sing and listen to music a lot tend to get earworms more often than others.

“We now also know that, regardless of the chart success of a song, there are certain features of the melody that make it more prone to getting stuck in people’s heads like some sort of private musical screensaver.”

End Quote

Okay Shauna… now is the time we’ve all been waiting for. What are your most prominent earworms?


The Song that Doesn’t End (Lambchop and Sherry Lewis)

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt

A made up song that my uncle did

Welcome to the Black Parade - My Chemical Romance


Royals by Lourde, Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5, Strange Charm by Hank Green, Santeria by Sublime

Most frequently named earworms in study by Dr Jakubowski:

  1. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga

  2. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue

  3. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey

  4. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye

  5. “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5

  6. “California Gurls” by Katy Perry

  7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

  8. “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga

  9. “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga


Back to Stephen King’s EW article, talking about people who interact on his website and his blog posts:


I asked them to e-mail their most dreaded earworms, and boy, did I get deluged. Yet a clear winner emerged: ”Macarena,” by Los Del Rio. One of my respondents, Natalie Shannon, summed it up best: ”I hate this song even when I’m drunk.”

End Quote


Other songs he mentioned in the article were:

  • Coconut by Harry Nilsson

  • Who Let the Dogs Out by Baha Men

  • Mambo No.5 by Lou Bega

  • Daniel by Elton John

  • I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry

  • Thong Song by Sisqo

  • Mickey by Toni Basil

  • Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes

  • MMMBop by Hanson


There are some cures, though. 

According to Richard Gray in a March 24, 2013 article in The Daily Telegraph, scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging working memory in moderately difficult tasks such as anagrams, sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel is an effective way to stopping earworms. 

Other suggest breaking the repetition of the song by achieving a climax, or musically resolving the song.

Dr Victoria Williamson et al found that certain songs could temporarily cure your earworm, like singing Happy Birthday or the A-Team theme song. Not sure what you need to do to get those songs out of your head.

Shauna, do you have any cure songs?


Creep - Radiohead, but not Radiohead’s version. A slightly creepier version by a woman who’s name I can’t remember

Jolene by Dolly Parton


I do not have any cure songs, except Santeria because I know how to end that one, but I’m gonna start using the A-Team song, cause I loved that show and I still have the theme in my memory banks.

Wrap up...

Okay, I cannot leave this episode without sharing the one thing I think of anytime someone says “earworm”. Even still to this day, some 30 odd years later, I remember watching Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. And I was a kid when I saw this movie, not even a teenager yet. I hadn’t really been subjected to the horrors of movies like Carrie or the Exorcist. The worst I’d seen was Raiders of the Lost Ark where some Nazis get their faces melted off. I hadn’t even seen Ghost yet where the bad guy gets stabbed through his torso by falling glass from a window pane and then is dragged into hell by some super scary demons. So this scene in Star Trek really was the first cringy body horror scene I’d ever experienced. 

In one of the opening scenes, Chekov and Captain Terrell - played by Paul Winfield - crash land on a planet that just happens to be the home of the exiled Khan. Khan wants revenge on Kirk. So, he drops the eel thing into their space suit helmets. And you watch as the worm-looking thing wiggles its way to Chekov’s ear, Khan explains that it crawls into your ear and basically attaches itself to your brain, which then makes you extremely susceptible to suggestions until you eventually go mad.

And oh my goodness that scene freaked me out. So now whenever I have an earworm, I think of that scene. And it gives me the heebie jeebies. And then I often forget the song that was stuck in my head. So that is my recommendation to you. Watch some freaky, scary scene where an adored character gets attacked by an actual earworm when you are a kid, and then it can help you keep from having actual earworms in real life. Or just sing Happy Birthday. Whichever works better for you.



That’s about all the time we have for today, but before we leave we want to announce that we are trying something new over on our Patreon! Starting with this episode, we are doing a video recording. We will be posting it to our Patreon and patrons at any level will have access to see this behind the scenes footage. We aren’t making it part of any specific tier yet since we are just trying it out, but who better to test things out with than our awesome supporters!


As always, you can get the free show notes for this episode, plus links to everything we do, on our website, And if you have an earworm, or an earworm cure that you want to share with us, hit us up on our socials, @bunnytrailspod on Twitter or Facebook. 

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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