(This column was first published in the July 31, 2000 Buffalo News.)
Do we pay any attention to insects?
Most of us would respond to that inquiry, "Very little -- unless, that is, they either sting us, invade our kitchens or destroy our plants." In other words we pay them little heed until they bother us.
And yet it seems that insects enter our thinking much more than we realize. As evidence of this, consider how they enrich our language.
Some time ago the Canadian entomologist, Claude Godin, invited his colleagues who belong to an internet mailing list to contribute common expressions related to insects. He has now shared his collection with us and it is quite simply delightful. It also speaks to the many ways we think about the bugs around us. Here are some of his examples:
Ants, Bees and Wasps
Nervous people have ants in their pants or they're antsy. We are strongly attracted to something like ants to honey. Something is as predictable as ants at a picnic. Busy places are an anthill of activity. Irritating thoughts are bees in our bonnets. Some women enjoy beehive hairdos; others have bee-stung lips; still others are wasp-waisted. We make a bee-line to a goal. We get waspish or, temper rising still farther, mad as a hornet. And when problems develop we say we have opened a hornet's nest.
A problem is a bug in the system and more specifically we have computer and millennium bugs. (Interestingly, the original computer bug was an insect that invaded a mainframe.) Someone especially attractive is cute as a bug's ear; they're surely not bug-eyed. To get rid of someone we tell them to bug off or bug out. Alternatively we threaten them by telling them we'll squash them like a bug on the windshield or we'll be all over them like a duck on a junebug. Some people are crazy as a bedbug and we tell our children to sleep tight and not let the bedbugs bite. People with a fixed idea have a bug up their large intestine. We're no longer snug as a bug in a rug when the room we're in is bugged.
Butterflies and Moths
Nervous people have butterflies in their stomachs. We observe social butterflies at a party where we're attracted to someone like a moth to a flame. But all that comes to mind are moth-eaten conversational ploys. A studious person is a bookworm. Mohammed Ali floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee. We worm in where we aren't wanted and a reversal of fortune is when the worm turns.
Fleas, lice, ticks and mites
A stupid person is flea-brained or a nitwit; a bad person a louse. We feel lousy, especially when someone ticks us off. A nervous person acts like a flea in a hot skillet. When we suggest something to someone we put a flea in their ear; hopefully we're not nit-picking when we do so. We avoid flea-bag hotels.
An unobtrusive observer is like a fly on the wall and active people have no flies on them. An argument for a soft sell: we catch more flies with honey than we can with vinegar. And Groucho Marx tells us, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
Some folks are as welcome as a cockroach in a glass of milk. Youngsters are still knee-high to a grasshopper. Illicit invitations are offered like a spider to a fly and usually involve a web of lies. Some thin folks have spider legs. And when our thoughts are disorganized we're said to have a grasshopper mind.
From here I'll buzz off.-- Gerry Rising