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).

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