Bed Bug Semantics

There is an interesting discussion going on in the media about bed bugs. Or, Bedbugs.  The issue is, is it one word or two?

Traditionally (i.e, the last 100 years or so), entomologists are taught that stonefly and deer fly are written differently on purpose; A stonefly is not a true fly (Diptera), so is written as one word.  Deer fly IS a true fly, so is written as two words.  Basically, it’s a way to signify insects with common names that are taxonomically incorrect.  A bed bug IS a true bug (Hemiptera), so it is written as two words, not one.

Unless….you are using the AP Style Guide.
In a recent tweet, they declared that bedbug is one word.

A word pundit opines:

The rule about inserting spaces in insect common names seems to be a modern creation, an informal way of using the spelling of these names as an aide memoire to distinguish Diptera or Hemiptera species from other little beasties. It’s highly unlikely ever to affect the usual spelling of bedbug, since the tendency in modern English is to amalgamate multi-word terms into single words, not split them apart. The spelling has long since become standard for everybody except professional entomologists.

So, does it really matter? Is it important to anyone besides entomologists to make this distinction?

I dithered over this for quite a while, since I’m the sort of person that completely looses my shit when I see “potato’s for sale” at the supermarket.  I confess; I’m a grammar nerd.

For the average Joe Public, this distinction is probably not hugely important, although it is a nice way to remember your taxonomy. But for professional journalists–the kinds of people that would be following the AP style guide–yes, I  think it does matter. Why in the world would you deliberately ignore an established convention of a major biological discipline? That’s just….weird.

The AP Stylebook is WRONG.  Bug Girl has spoken.

17 thoughts on “Bed Bug Semantics

  1. It’s not just that AP is choosing to ignore the professional standard. It’s that they advocate a formulation that carries, depending on how you look at it, either less information than before, or wrong information.

  2. In the second paragraph, you say, “a bed bug IS a true bug (Hemiptera), so it is written as one word, not two”, which rather confused me.

    In any case, I really only consider @FakeAPStylebook to be authoritative.

  3. The Entomological Society of America Guide to Common Names of Insects is the definitive guide, and lists the common name as “bed bug”.

    However, entomologists in the UK often use the one word spelling for housefly, blackfly, etc. I consider both incorrect.

  4. Hi Bug Girl!

    “A bed bug IS a true bug (Hemiptera), so it is written as one word, not two.”

    I think you meant it the other way around?

    I wonder if AP is following the New York Times, who wrongly insist on “bedbug.”

  5. DAMN IT! I double checked this thing 3 times, since I knew that when I said I was into grammar, I would make some embarrassing mistake.
    I exceeded my expectations *hangs head in shame*

    fixed.

    sigh.

  6. hee. (just read YOUR comment) I love it when I make editing/spelling/grammar errors and my friend catches it (thank heaven) and then I continue to claim skills as an editor. EMBARRASSING!

    a. I LOVE that you explained that convention and think it’s TOTALLY useful and interesting and edifying. THANK YOU! Awesome. Seriously. I’m such a word nerd, it makes me inordinately happy.
    b. Of COURSE they should follow conventions of the folks who are EXPERT in the field. It’s a no-brainer.

  7. Hard to beat Alex’s succinct summary, but I think they should follow the logic of the Journalist’s “Bible” to its logical conclusion and use BB in any APreports.

  8. According to the Entomological Society of America’s Book of Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms, it is two words:

    http://www.entsoc.org/pubs/common_names/index.htm

    The explanation above is correct. It is two words because it is a true bug. Likewise, a “house fly” is a true fly, so it is written as two words, whereas a dragonfly (obviously not a true fly) is written as one word. The same goes for “honey bee” — a true bee, so it is two words.

    HOWEVER, Websters Dictionary spells these words as bedbug, housefly and honeybee (all one word). So it all comes down to who you trust more — the biggest entomological society in the world, or the Websters people.

  9. Just to keep things perfectly unclear, if you consult The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (this is English usage we are discussing), it reports for ‘chinch’ “More fully chinch-bug 1 A bed-bug Now only N. Amer.”

    Buried amongst the several columns of fine print after ‘bed’ is ‘bedbug’ “a bloodsucking hemipteran insect of the genus Cimex (esp. C. lectularius), which infests beds”.

    Needless to say, this is shockingly inconsistent and not true in my experience re chinch bugs (and also I would have used ‘that’ and no comma).

    Just to keep it even more unorderly, in the OED there is no ‘honey bee’ only ‘honeybee’. Google supports this usage: ‘honeybee’ beats ‘honey bee’ 4,940,00 TO 3,490,00 (but amazingly ‘bed bug’ and ‘bedbug’ are tied at 3,700,000. That must be one interesting algorithm they Google is using). However, ‘honey ant’ and ‘honey possum’ are given as two words in the OED; ‘honey-bird’, ‘honey-bear’ hyphenated; and ‘honeyguide’ – another bird – mashed together.

    Maybe we should just let people call them what they want and restrict more formal definitions to class (where the rule can be enforced). However, I do like the hyphenated form of these constructions since they would seem to be the clearest indication that it really is a bug, bee, etc. and not two words that just happen to be juxtaposed in a sentence.

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