Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Episode 197: Don't Bug Me and Other Insect Idioms


This week Shauna and Dan talk about the insect idioms that have crawled their way into the English language. Bonus: Phineas and Ferb, a foxtrot, and legendary scary monsters.

Click to read the show notes 

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 197: Don’t Bug Me and Other Insect Idioms
Record Date: June 24, 2023
Air Date: June 28, 2023


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

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

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

Opening Hook
Most people don’t particularly like the idea of insects being a part of their daily lives. Yet, they’ve definitely found a way into our daily speech. From stating that a small child is knee-high to a grasshopper… to expressing the sensation of butterflies in one’s stomach when feeling anxious… The English Language is infested with bug-related phrases.


Some of our listeners might not like bugs very much but we’ll try to focus on the phrases and facts to avoid being too icky.

We’re going to talk about a few phrases and our first is the word bug used as an intransitive verb.

Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to bug someone means,
To annoy, irritate; to bother, pester. Originally chiefly in jazz slang.
End Quote

This idea of Jazz is a decent theory for this usage of the word bug. In the late 1700s, the word meant to spoil or ruin… but there is a pretty big gap - about 200 years - between this meaning and the current usage meaning to annoy.

The term was used in one of Jack Kerouac’s Selected Letters from 1947.
You must start reading Balzac, incidentally, but don't let me rush you and bug you.
End Quote

Now, bug isn’t always used in reference to something negative or annoying. For example, one phrase that I find particularly adorable is “snug as a bug in a rug”. I don’t know why but it just sounds so cute!

This phrase comes to us from the sea. Not necessarily the bug or the rug portion but the word snug.

According to Oxford English Dictionary snug means,
Of a ship or her parts: Trim, neat, compact; adequately or properly prepared for, or protected from, bad weather.
End Quote

As a phrase, snug as a bug in a rug or safe as a bug in a rug is described as being safe or secure from harm.

Some theories mention that the “rug” in the phrase originally referred to certain types of cocoons that moths or worms make but I couldn’t find any evidence of this explanation.

This is a phrase that seems to have happened rather organically. Bugs seem comfortable and secure when curled up in a rug - at least when imagined so.

One notable early example of the phrase was used in the Shakespeare Jubilee, also called the Stratford Jubilee. This event was staged in Stratford-upon-Avon, September 6 through 8, 1769. In one of the performances a character said,

If she [a rich widow] has the mopus's, I'll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.
End Quote

The character was confident in their ability to win over the widow or capture her attention, so long as she was affected by the condition mentioned - the mopus’s. Long story short, mopus was often used to describe individuals as a dreamer, lazy or lacking ambition. I guess he thought it would be easy to woo her?

The oasis June 23, 1900 out of Arizola, Arizona kindly shared the following
The OAsis has been requested to give space to the following letter from Billy Young to his mother, Mrs. England: Tucson, May 30th, 1900.
DEAR MOTHER:- Your welcome letter of the 27th date at hand. Never mind about the bail business, and the hot weather and all that, I am just as snug as a bug in a rug.
End Quote  

He goes on to attempt to comfort his mom and finishes the letter informing her that he will be home in a month and will have graduated from college. He also reminds her not to work too hard. Very sweet.

Now, before we had sweet little bugs in rugs, there was an even earlier mention of an insect in its safe space.

There is a similar phrase found in the 1707 work by Edward Ward titled, The Wooden World Dissected In the Character of a Ship of War. As Also the Characters of All the Officers, From the Captain to the Common Sailor.
He sits as snug as a Bee in a Box, making his Honey.
End Quote

I just have to say that I thought bugs in rugs was a cute saying… but bees in a box, making their honey? That’s almost magical. It’s more than just a safe space. A bee making his honey is like a bee does. Just a happy little bee doing that one thing he’s meant for.

Right, so this brings us to the bees. Bees are wonderful little creatures - they pollinate the plants we rely on for food and the plants that just look nice. Some bees make delicious honey and they usually stick to their own general area, leaving humans alone so long as we do the same.

There are a lot of expressions with bees in them. You might have heard the phrase “busy as a bee” meaning that a person is either working non-stop or just seems to constantly be doing some sort of activity. We’ve also heard “bee in one’s bonnet” which means a person is rather angry about a particular thing.

In Episode 81 of Bunny Trails, we discussed the term “Queen Bee” and Dan tried his hardest not to break out singing the 2013 Lordes song Royals. We learned that while Queen Bee refers to the dominant female in a group, the phrase actually originated as “King Bee”. If you want to learn more about that, check out Bunny Trails Episode 81: Queen Bee.

Finally, let’s get to the best part of bees… their knees!

No, bees don’t really have knees but the mere idea is cute.

Bees Knees is an interesting term. It has held opposite meanings throughout its use.

Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition
bee's knee n.
(a) a type of something small or insignificant;
(b) plural (slang, originally U.S.), the acme of excellence; ‘the cat's whiskers’.
End quote

Aside from a few instances when the two words bees knees found in print but ultimately very little use of the term prior to the 1920s. The references I located used the term to refer to something as tiny, non-existent, or unimportant.

When the 1920s hit… bam! There are hundreds of search results.

At this point, Bee’s Knees was being used to describe something excellent, or at the height of popularity - the best-of-the-best.

Here is one example from Music Trade Indicator Volume 45, published in 1923. This came from an article that was discussing ads for roller players. These were devices shaped like an upright piano and they had a big wheel in it that could be changed out. When that wheel was rolled or spun, it would play music.

Bees' Knees-Fox Trot
This famous fox trot scarcely needs an introduction, since it has already become the rage in the cabarets of Chicago and New York, and one of the best sellers in Victor records. Like the ancient mariners who chained themselves to their masts to escape the seductive songs of the sirens along the Rhine reefs, we defy anybody who is not tied down to keep still when the playerpiano plays "Bees' Knees." Near the end of the melody Pete Wendling has playfully changed the rhythm into a delicious jazz which heaps up the "last straw" of merriment for the dancers, and keeps the poor orchestra working overtime.
End quote

Within a decade the phrase was everywhere.

The Leatherneck The Gazette January 1932 edition, published by the Marine Corps Institute, includes a segment titled “Bee’s Nees” - spelled b-e-e-s n-e-e-s.

Some one asked us the other day where this column derived its name. Here is the answer: Last November one of our correspondents visited Chicago where he was introduced to a cocktail that could have been concocted by no less divinity than Bacchus himself. The next day when he was able to inquire the name of this beverage, the host replied that it was known as "The Bees Knees" because of one of the ingredients. What's that? Well, if we must, we must. Take one part strained honey (for the Bees), one part lemon juice (for the knees), and three parts Gordonwater (non-alcoholic), put in the old shaker with plenty of cracked ice, give it the Gilda Gray motion until you can scrape frost off the outside. There you have it; the Greeks called him Dionysus; the Romans, Bacchus; the Teutons, Liber; but we know him as "Bees Knees."
End quote
You might be wondering… just what exactly is the Gilda Gray motion?

Gilda Gray was an American actress, singer, and dancer who gained popularity in the 1920s. She was known for her performances in vaudeville and Broadway, particularly for her dance called the "Shimmy."

So, you just shake up the drink… but enough to maybe make your hips shimmy a little.

Hey, Dan. I have an idea for what might help someone do the shimmy if they aren’t sure how…
They just need some ants in their pants.

Cambridge Dictionary tells us that to have ants in your pants means
to not be able to keep still because you are very excited or worried about something
End quote

Ants in your pants started showing up in print in the late 1800s. There are no good theories for this phrase aside from the obvious… People with literal ants in their pants certainly move around a lot. There is something to be said for the term antsy sort of adding to the phrase being related to eagerness, nervousness, et cetera.

The phrase appears in a fun little story in the San Antonio daily light. August 10, 1887 from San Antonio, Texas. The piece is titled, Their First Debate.
Fun In the Belknap Armory by the Literary and Debating Society.
The Belkosp Literary and Debating Society heid their first debase last night in the armory, and while they held, under circumstances, a creditable meeting, there is no question but what the members are better in the *fleld" than in the rostrum. 'The question for debate was, "Resolved that machinery is advantageous to labor." The affirmative was supported by Corner, Garcia, Bee and Chamberlain. R. B. Green and Forsyth maintained the negative.
The orators, or at least most of them came unpre-pared, yet they carried a roll of manu-script. Corner looked as if he had a red ant in his pants and wanted to hurry off to get rid of it. Garcia trembled and seemed to say, “I’ll never do so again." Bee was confident and closed his effusion with poetry. Chamberlain did fairly, but forgot to argue the question.
End Quote

We find this phrase - though in a more literal sense - in the book Camp-fires of a Naturalist: The Story of Fourteen Expeditions After North American Mammals, from the Field Notes of Lewis Lindsay Dyche, A. M., M. S., Professor of Zoölogy and Curator of Birds and Mammals in the Kansas State University by Clarence Edgar Edwords, published in 1893.

That afternoon a voice was heard calling away down the cañon. Wondering who it could be, Dyche and Brown went down to render aid if aid was needed. It was Clare, who had made the trip up into those wild mountains alone. Brown's bed on one side of the tent, while Dyche occupied the other. About midnight the sleepers were aroused by an appalling din, and Clare bolted through the tent entrance without waiting to untie the strings. He stood by the fire yelling at the top of his voice.

"What's the matter with you? Have you got the nightmare?" asked Brown.

"Ants! ants in my pants!" yelled Clare, as he rubbed his legs and tried to dislodge the insects. He was scolded into returning to bed, and the camp had barely got settled down again when the racket broke out once more, but this time it was Brown, and he was immediately followed by Clare.

"Ants! ants!" they screamed.
End quote

An unlucky gentleman was called out in The Redwood gazette from July 23, 1936, out of Redwood Falls, Minnesota.
That delicate little lyric, “I can’t dance, I got ants in my pants" certainly was not written by anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing the agitated maneuvers of Fritz Pfeiffer when he got a bee in his bustle.
Golfers who applauded Fritz's Fandango of the Fairway report it as a strip act never before equalled in this conservative community.
End quote

Music continues to lean into this phrase. Moving forward in time to almost modern-ish. The funk song I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance) by James Brown was originally released in 1972. It’s been sampled by other artists a few times over the years and remains a well-loved funk song. Here are some of the lyrics.

Is your love for real?
Do you know how I feel?
Tell me what you're
Gonna do about that
I got ants in my pants
And I need to dance
Come on
I got ants in my pants
And I need to dance
Some big fine mama
Come and give me a chance
End quote

Alright, let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

Snug Bug in a Rug
Snug As a Bug is a 2004 children’s book authored by Michael Elsohn Ross, and illustrated by Sylvia Long.
Here is a summary
 Award-winning artist Sylvia Long has teamed up with author and naturalist Michael Elsohn Ross to create a truly enchanting bedtime book. From goodnight stories to goodnight kisses, the simple, cozy text celebrates the special bedtime rituals that are so beloved by both parent and child. With its colorful butterflies, cozy caterpillars and dreamy ladybugs—all in their cutest pajamas—this is a book that readers will want to snuggle up with again and again.
End quote

Snug as a bug is an oil painting by Theo Overgaauw from the Netherlands found on Saatchiart. The art is described as
Snug as a bug is a modern abstract painting with figurative and surreal elements. This work is created on polyester(not on Linen) with Old Holland acrylic and oil paint and will come with a Certificate of Authenticity. All paintings are signed at the back…
End quote

I can’t quite tell if this is supposed to be a series of rocks balanced on top of one another or if it is perhaps round foods like potatoes or olives? Either way, I get the snug concept as the items are all nicely fitted together.

Bee’s Knees

On his blog,, Rusty Burlew shared the post, “Do Bees Have Knees?” in 2018. It remains relevant. Let’s see what he has to say on the topic.
Last week I was speaking to a high school beekeeping club when one of the attendees asked the inevitable question: “Do bees have knees?” The answer of course is yes. In fact, they have six.

In humans, the knee is the joint between the femur and the tibia. Since bees have a femur and a tibia in each leg, they sure as heck have knees.
End quote

If you recall a theme from this phrase’s history, it isnt’ surprising that there are a few recipes available online. shared a recipe for Bee’s Knees in 2020 in the category of Gin Cocktails. Here is a snippet from the beginning of the post,
The Bee’s Knees is a Prohibition-era cocktail featuring gin, lemon juice and honey. The unique name is a convention of the time: The phrase “bee’s knees” was popular slang used to call something excellent or outstanding.

The drink is credited to Frank Meier, an Austrian-born bartender who plied his trade at the Hôtel Ritz Paris during the 1920s. It’s a simple extension of the classic Gin Sour (gin, lemon, sugar) that features honey instead of sugar. The honey creates a richer drink, and it may have been employed to mask the taste of subpar gin, which was prevalent at the time.
End quote

Ants in Pants

Before we go any further, I have to diverge from the phrase slightly, and indulge Dan… he’s been waiting for this moment for a good portion of the episode, I’m sure. The TV show Phineas and Ferb used an altered version of the phrase ants in one’s pants in season 1 episode 25 Got Game? / Comet Kermilian which originally aired in 2008.

The episode features the song Squirrels In My Pants which was posted on YouTube by DisneyMusicVevo in 2020 as a singalong with the caption,
Tell me what's making you jump like that!
S-I-M-P, squirrels in my pants! 🎶
Candance struggles to get squirrels out of her pants!
End quote

In the episode, Candace’s dancing - which is the result of said squirrels and not her talent - ends up turning into a dance/music sensation when a rap/hip-hop group improvises the song after hearing her yell “I’ve got squirrels in my pants!” and squirming while she walks through the park with her friends. Within moments, everyone starts singing and dancing her wild dance. It’s good fun.

And that reminds me of another bug idiom - Earworm. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an Earworm is “A catchy tune, piece of music, or (occasionally) phrase which persistently stays in a person's mind, esp. to the point of irritation” We discussed this one in Bunny Trails Episode 94: Earworm.

That Phineas & Ferb song is most definitely an Earworm. And speaking of worms… this next item has both ants and worms.

Ants in Your Pants, Worms in Your Plants! is A Gilbert Picture Book by Diane deGroat published in 2011. Here is a synopsis from the publisher:
Gilbert has trouble coming up with ideas. First he couldn't think of a springtime poem, and now he needs an idea for an Earth Day project! Everyone else in Mrs. Byrd's class is busy working on posters about recycling and saving water and electricity, but Gilbert wants to do something original. A distressing class picnic inspires him, and he comes up with an Earth Day project that even Mrs. Byrd thinks is the best idea yet.

With vivid, lively illustrations and a timely story about how kids really can help the world around them, Diane deGroat shows readers of all ages that sometimes the simplest solutions are right in our own backyards!
End quote

Wrap up:
And that wraps up our buzzing episode featuring a few idioms with insects! These little critters have certainly made their way into our language, adding color, imagery, and humor to our conversations. Using insect idioms allows us to convey emotions and experiences in a relatable and memorable way. I love these phrases. They’re the bee’s knees

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Which legendary creature would you LEAST like to learn is real?

Coming in strong with 67% of the votes was the Windigo the flesheater of the forest with Skinwalkers of the Navajo coming in second place.

Other creatures included:
Bigfoot of the Northwest
The Mothman of West Virginia
Banshee of the Badlands
El Chupacabra of Puerto Rico

I don't love the idea of Skinwalkers or Windigo. But having read the Harry Dresden books, I definitely don't want skinwalkers to be real.

Jan shared
I'm going with Windigo. When I played EverQuest and WoW I needed a good character name and had a book about mythical beasts. Read up on it, seemed terrifying enough for me, so that's the name I picked.
End quote

Mary concurred stating simply,
I agree Windigos are scary.
End quote

I’ll be honest and it is merely a coincidence that this episode is about bugs… but everything I’ve heard about Mothman is ridiculously creepy!

And the stories of Skinwalkers give me the shimmies… eugh

The name says it all… and as for creep-factor… do you think part of it is in the name of a creature? I mean, “the flesheater of the forest” is a little intense.

I think when it comes to mythologies, names and titles can be a huge part of the oral tradition. Think Baccus, God of Wine.

But to your earlier point, I can’t be afraid of the Mothman because of Griffin McElroy’s portrayal of the character in The Adventure Zone podcast. Indrid Cold, aka the mothman, is an NPC in their Amnesty campaign and a player character in their second iteration of the Dust campaign.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


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

Words belong to their users.

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