An earworm is a cognitively infectious musical agent, more informally known as one of those annoying tunes that you can’t get out of your mind.
Though earworms have haunted me my whole life, I promise to refrain from providing lists of likely tunes that will haunt you forever. The word earworm has interested me since it was first introduced to me some time in the late 1960s by an aunt who grew up in Germany during the 40s and 50s.
Only a few years ago, most dictionary and etymology websites clearly credited James Kellaris, a Milwaukee professor, with the coinage of the word in 2001 (e.g. this AP story by Rachel Kipp). Others, like this Wikipedia article, credited Robert Frietag (a well-traveled primary teacher) for bringing the term to English in 1993. These Frietag & Kellaris claims curdled my cheese because (thanks to my Aunt Inge) my pals and I have been enjoying the word since I shared it at Columbus Junior High over four decades ago.
Today, a search for earworm etymology will produce over 40,000 hits. Thankfully, in the last year, many etymologists have dug a bit deeper, & while praising Kellaris’s research on the phenomenon of the earworm, have de-bunked the myth that he coined the word. I find no arguments debunking the Frietag origin, but I’m, pleased to say that at long last, most etymologists see earworm as a simple translation from the German word ohrwurm.
Confusing the issue is the fact that the German word ohrwurm also refers to dermaptera, the lowly earwig, a nasty little bug which has a tendency to make many of us squirm & whose name has inspired stories about earwigs climbing into people’s ears. The whole issue was likely further confused by a practice popular in “ancient times” (I can’t find where), of drying and grinding up dermaptera, then inserting the powder into infected ears as a medical treatment.
So I say bravo & brava to hundreds of hard-working etymologists, to Merriam Webster’s Eleventh Edition, & of course, Aunt Inge, for the word earworm.
Good blogophiles, feel free to comment on all this hoopla, or share one of your most annoying, most invasive earworm tunes.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Blue Harvest Forum, Word Origins.org, Wordspy.com, Wiktionary, & Dictionary.com
8/26/2019 07:59:36 pm
I love this! I've always wondered where the word came from. I'm sure I heard it before 2001. Not from your aunt, but maybe from somebody who spoke German or Dutch as a first language. Thanks for clarifying this! (And I promise not to hum "It's a Small World" in your presence.) Haha.
8/26/2019 09:04:04 pm
Hi Anne -- so glad you had a good time with this post. Earworm is just one of those words that makes so much beautiful sense, it's funny.
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I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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