Entomologists Share a Word

(This column was first published in the April 23, 2001 Buffalo News.)

     Steve Brown, a University at Buffalo colleague, wrote an article for a mathematics journal he titled, "Signed Numbers: A Product of Misconceptions." Immediately after the article was published he began to receive reprint requests from physicians around the world. He couldn't understand the medical interest in the integers until he focused on the word "misconceptions" in his title. Gynecologists had looked for that word in literature searches and blindly sent for copies. To many people misconceptions are misunderstood concepts; to pregnant women and their doctors the word takes on a different meaning entirely.

     There is a similar extension -- punning this time -- in the use of an entomological term in the world of computers and beyond that in the world in general. That word is "bug." May Berenbaum wrote a delightful column about this in the Fall 2000 American Entomologistand I draw upon that column here. In fact, Professor Berenbaum used the word in the title of her own excellent text on the impact of insects on human affairs. That book is Bugs in the System.

     To an entomologist the word bug refers to an insect of the family Hemiptera. That prefix "hemi" means half (as in hemisphere) and the family name derives from the fact that these insects have half of their forewings thickened and leathery. Among these so-called true bugs -- for most of the rest of us call all insects bugs -- are bed bugs, leaf bugs, stink bugs and many of those insects we see in ponds -- water boatmen, backswimmers, water striders and of course water bugs.

     Common knowledge assigns the first use of the word "bug" to represent an error or technical problem to Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. I knew Dr. Hopper from our association at professional meetings. Computer pioneer and co-inventor of an early computer language, she was a woman whose small stature belied her superb intellect. Here is Berenbaum on her invention: Hopper "coined the term on September 9, 1947, when a two-inch moth flew into the Mark II and burned out a relay. She pasted the toasted creature into her log book, now in the National Museum of American History, with the legend, 'first actual case of bug being found...'" (A photograph of this journal page is on the Smithsonian Institution website.)

     That episode turned up in the million dollar question, "What was the original computer bug?" a year ago on the quiz show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Joe Trela answered "A moth" and won.

     However, as Berenbaum points out, that was far from the first use of the word bug to represent an error in any kind of system. In fact, Hopper herself had used the word earlier in her own notes to describe computer glitches. Among those who used the term before Hopper was Thomas Edison. In describing his inventive process (in 1878), he said, "Difficulties arise -- this thing gives out and then that --  'Bugs' -- as such little faults...are called...." But, happily for him, Trela got to keep the money.

     More recently we've had the millennium or Y2K bug, that threat that led many people to store extra food in case commerce came to a standstill, and the love bug computer virus, a highly destructive self-replicating program disguised as a benign e-mail message with the subject heading, "I love you." We cannot blame hemipterans for this one -- the lovebug of the insect world is not a bug at all; it is a kind of fly.

     Enough of bugs. Just keep off my car windshield.-- Gerry Rising