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shameless pleading

Bessie bug, crazy as a

And no overheating like with the tropical fishes.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the term “Crazy as a Bessie Bug” and what does it mean? — G.L.L.

Oh goody, a bug question. Well, you’ve come to the right place. Not necessarily the right person (because I loathe bugs and do my best to pretend they don’t exist), but definitely the right place. Our house seems to be bug central this summer, even more so than usual. But there’s something weird going on. Several of our usual summer visitors, such as June bugs, failed to show up this year. In their place, however, they apparently sent platoons of giant black ants, some really ugly centipedes, and, of course, more scary spiders than you’d find in a Stephen King novel. Personally, I blame global warming. Or maybe it’s all the cell phones. Whatever. I just hope we never get those giant flying cockroaches they have in Florida. Guess where I have no intention of retiring.

I thought, when I first read your question, that you might have mis-heard the classic expression “Crazy as a bedbug,” meaning flamboyantly deranged, which I’ve heard since I was a little kid. Back then I thought “bedbugs” were imaginary creatures invented by adults to scare children (“Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!”). Now that I know bedbugs are real, I must say that the expression makes no sense, since bedbugs are, by all accounts, crafty and devious critters (and their human victims are the ones driven crazy). “Crazy as a bedbug” would only make sense if it were, like “crazy like a fox,” an inverted way of saying the person is actually very clever and thus not crazy at all.

There is, however, also the expression “crazy as a bessie bug,” meaning “agitated, irrational, erratic,” which is apparently common in the southern US states and has been since at least the late 19th century. The “bessie” bug, also known as the “betsey bug,” “betsy beetle,” “bess bug” and variants thereof, is a member of the Passalidae family of beetles and also sometimes goes by the monikers “horn beetle,” “patent-leather beetle” and “pinch bug.” Shiny black beetles, they grow to be about one and one-half inches long and have nasty-looking pincers with which they bite things. And yes, they can fly. But I’m sure they make great pets. Beetles, of course, are literally everywhere, since there are more than 350,000 species of them, which is what led the great biologist J.B.S. Haldane to note that the one thing he could infer with certainty about the Creator was that “he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Yes, that tale may be apocryphal, but I like it.)

While bedbugs do their best to hide from human eyes and lurk in the nooks and crannies of furniture, etc., bessie bugs wander around in plain sight looking for rotting logs to eat. As I said, they can fly, and, more importantly with regard to the “crazy” label, they can and do create a wide variety of sounds by rubbing their wings against their bodies. They apparently actually use these sounds to communicate with other bessie bugs (a fact that should make me stand in awe of nature, yadda yadda, but actually really creeps me out).

All in all, the highly active and evidently very vocal bessie bug would seem a far more fitting example of insect “craziness,” especially in large groups, than the reclusive bedbug. In fact, I’m wondering whether “crazy as a bedbug,” first attested in print in the mid-19th century, might actually have begun as a modification of “crazy as a bessbug.” Bedbugs, of course, are far more common than bessie bugs in the cities where most people live, so the substitution of “bed” for “bess” would have made the phrase make more sense to most people. This process, called “folk etymology,” is the same “make it sound familiar” mechanism that turned “catercorner” (where “cater” was an obscure old English dialect word meaning “diagonally”) into “kittycorner” (which makes absolutely no sense, but at least everyone knows what “kitty” means).

23 comments to Bessie bug, crazy as a

  • “No zhizhing and dripping . . . .” You’ve inspired me to pull out my copy of “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.” So much for productivity this morning.

  • Madelynn

    Our father used to tell us, when we did stupid or silly things, that we were as “crazy as a betsey (sp) bug”. We have southern roots.

    I was talking with a friend of mine last night and she that it referred to the infamous “begbug”. I disagreed. But she is one of those friends who thinks she is always right!

    So, today I did “Ask.com”

    The explanation helps me immensely. Thanx,

  • Lowell Nelson

    I’d rather be “crazyier than a betsy bug” than a Republican ( “worthless as a tit on a boar hog!” ).

    • Mel

      @Lowell: Your comment is totally off topic here (as is mine, but the need for corrective balance justifies mine).

      By and large, Republicans THINK, while Democrats simply FEEL. For example, Democrats can’t (or won’t) rise above their feelings of misplaced compassion to see that spending other people’s money works only until they run out of other people’s money. Think I’m wrong? Name a country that has become more prosperous under socialism.

      Note that not one word you wrote is logical; you were merely spewing your hate feelings, and that does not speak well of you. Note also that I have shut you down without calling you either crazyier [sic] or worthless, you dirty rat fink. [:-)

      @Lue: I like your explanation. Extending your thought, it seems logical that, after repeatedly crashing his airplane into a mountainside, even a Republican pilot would become crazy as a Bessie Bug! [:-)

      • David

        Mel, you are simply wrong. You got it backwards. Republicans are the ones whose policies/behaviors are based on emotions, while Democrats think. That follows from the fact that almost all academics are Democrats, while the rabble, particular those who subscribe to Fox News as a source of (mis)information are republicans.

        Interesting that Lowell used the expression “worthless as a tit on boar hog.” I heard that expression frequently when I was growing up, mostly from my mother who grew up in Little Dixie (SE Oklahoma). I have rarely heard it since, mostly from people from that area and contiguous parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana. I used it a week or so ago on another forum with reference to my senator Tom Coburn, and have seen it crop up several times since in internet discussions.

  • Jessica

    Sooo….. I’m still trying to figure out What a Bessie Bug is?!?!? Some sort of Beetle is all that I’m gathering from what I read

  • Lue Leshoure III

    I heard the Betsy Bug flies around so irratic and fast that it spends
    a large amount of time knocked out from running into objects.

  • DARON

    In the winter time when fire wood is burned you can find bessie bug resting in or on the logs. These bugs just sit there and do not move even when they are placed in the heat. Yes then move slow from staying outside in the cold but it is crazy to stay on the log and die

  • Alexandra

    I am a born and raised Texan and I have never heard the expression, “crazy as a bessie bug” or “as a bedbug”. I must agree that your explanation was somewhat helpful in answering the question, but was primarily your personal loathing of bugs, not that they’re super awesome, or anything. One thing that I feel I must correct you on, is that the phrase is not “kitty cornered”, but rather “catty-cornered”. You are correct that it is derived from “cater-cornered”, which means diagonal.

    • lao pengyou

      …unless of course you’re from western pennsylvania where “younses” can go “kitty” corner to the “sammich” shop for a philly cheesesteak :-)).

  • joe2

    I am from Tennessee, and have heard that term ever since I can remember. I would agree with Lue Leshoure III that the Betsy Bug flies around so irriticly, circulling, and seemingly to get no where, until if soon falls out from exhausting. I would compare it to “like running around like a chicken with his head cut off…”

  • CeCe

    I have witnessed those gigantic beetles flying and they will land anywhere they feel like it including your head, no matter how loud you scream and run. They do fly around erraticlly, wings buzzing loudly so “crazy as a bessie bug” is accurate. I’ve heard it mainly from older relatives in Southwest TX. I live in Northeast TX and have never heard anyone say it.

  • Betsybugs

    My mother was born in Texas and that may be where I learned it…or it could have been in Kansas or Georgia. My name is Betsy and my nickname as a child was Bug so I adopted the name and find it quite fitting.

  • Ivadell lewis

    Iwas born in Tennessee. What I remember about the Bessie bug was a small mound of dirt. my grandpa told us kids to get right over the mound and to repeat several times. Bessie bug, Bessie bug come out, your house is on fire ,,, keep singing it and the little bug will come out
    ,,,I have tried it and it works. Today is my birthday I’m 85 years old today and I’ve experienced this for myself!!!!!

  • ok was having a debate in the middle of night about Bessie bugs seeing how we work in a psych unit, but I wanted to say the song we sang was lady bug lady bug fly away home your house is on fire and the kids are alone umm a bug by any other name is still a but ?

  • Texican

    I grew up hearing the phrase “crazy as a Bessie bug” but always thought it was just some made up expression by locals and was not known outside the local area. I’m glad I found this page because now I know that I am not “crazy as a Bessie bug” as my Dad always said.

  • Donna

    I was born and raised in Tennessee and still make my home in Tennessee. I’ve heard “crazy as a Bessie bug” all my life…as well as “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Here in Tennessee, both phrases are closely related!

  • Linda

    @Ivadell the expression we learned in Ky was doodlebug, doolebug come out your house is on fire….and yes, crazy as a bessy bug was a common saying of my Mother as well as running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off.

  • I was born and raised in Chicago Il and I’ve always heard the phrase Crazy as a Bessie Bug and I am now 57 and still don’t know what a Bessie Bug is lol

    • Ronnie

      You must have lived around Kenmore ave., as this area was “home” to many of us Alabama/Tennessee *hillbillies* for many years. It is now an upper-class residential section of town, but for many years housed the poor, lower class (which is what my family was).
      I also lived in Chicago, but now live in Alabama and we have always used the phrase “Crazy as a Bessie bug”, which we inherited from our mother.

  • Ron

    So, in other words, you don’t know either!

  • Ifraj Schkoor

    Sooo….ma didn’t make that up.. Hmph~~

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