Bedbugs and Bessie Bugs

By Maeve Maddox

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The other day, I heard a celebrity say that someone was “as crazy as a bedbug.” I laughed, amused that the person had gone so far wrong with the idiom “crazy as a bessie bug.”

As I usually do when struck by some linguistic oddity, I began searching for other examples. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that “crazy as a bedbug” is not only a recognized idiom, it is more common in the printed record than “crazy as a bessie bug.”

A Google search resulted in 81,500,000 results for the bedbug version compared to only 1,340,000 for the bessie bug. “Crazy as a betsy bug” fared a little better at 4,430,000 hits.

“Crazy as a bedbug” comes up on the Ngram Viewer as early as the nineteenth century and the idiom appears in a book called The American Joe Miller published in 1865.

“Crazy as a bessie bug” doesn’t produce any ngrams, but “crazy as a betsy bug” registers in the early 1920s and peaks in 1998.

Merriam Webster offers an entry for bess-bug: “any of various gregarious flattened dark-colored beetles constituting a family (Passalidae) and living in decaying wood.” Bessybug is given as an alternative name.

Thankfully (up until now anyway) I’ve never seen a bedbug, but I’ve read that they hide during the day and only come out to torment sleeping people. I wonder why a creature that spends most of its time unnoticed would become the epitome of craziness, which is usually depicted as extreme agitation.

My musings on the bedbug idiom brought to mind two others that have given me difficulty in the past.

full of beans
To me, the expression “to be full of beans” means to be full of energy and ready to go. The idiom makes sense to me because I’ve read that horses used to be fed beans as well as hay and that people thought that bean-fed horses were livelier than those that lacked beans in their diet.

My surprise came when I heard someone react to something someone else said by exclaiming, “That is not true. He’s full of beans!” In researching that idiom, I discovered that some English speakers use “full of beans” to mean “misinformed” or “untruthful.”

I can only guess that the “full of energy” meaning came first and that the alternative one may have resulted from confusion with another bean-related idiom: “not know beans,” as in, “He doesn’t know beans about cybersecurity.”

The Grammatist site (US-based), acknowledges that“the phrase full of beans is sometimes used to mean ‘not truthful,’” but admonishes readers that “this is not the correct use of the idiom.”

Merriam-Webster places the “full of energy” definition first and the “untruthful” meaning second, labeled as United States usage.

to be out of pocket
I can’t remember where I first heard this idiom. It may have been in England, but it’s possible I first heard it in Rochester, New York. In the context, “to be out of pocket” meant to have used my own money to pay for something. The idiom can also mean “to be short of funds.” Here are examples of both meanings:

Use the company credit card so that you won’t be out of pocket.
I would pay for your ticket, but at the moment, I’m out of pocket.

Years later, at work in a newspaper office in Arkansas, I was confused when the boss announced one day that she would be “out of pocket for the rest of the afternoon.” I finally figured out that she meant she’d be away from the office and not available by telephone.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “out of pocket” gives only the following definitions:

1. low on money or funds
2. having suffered a loss
3. from cash on hand

Grammarphobia, on the other hand, a US blog site, acknowledges the existence of the “unavailable” meaning and quotes the use of it in an O. Henry story published in 1908:

Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.

For my part, I will stick with bessie bug for “crazy as a” and look for contextual clues when others talk about being “out of pocket” or “full of beans.”

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5 Responses to “Bedbugs and Bessie Bugs”

  • Br Kelly

    I wonder if the expression “full of beans” came from another expression about being full of something else, and so was a more acceptable use. I have only heard the expression used with the idea of being not truthful

  • Maeve

    Br Kelly,
    The other “full of” works as one definition of “full of beans.” In fact, most of the American speakers I asked what they understood by “full of beans” responded with it. According to the Ngram Viewer, the less polite version arose in the 1940s. “Full of beans,” on the other hand, goes way back

  • TheBlueBird11

    I never understood beans to mean energy. But it brought to mind the phrase “hill of beans,” meaning “not much,” as in “He’ll never amount to a hill of beans.” Clearly, beans are not worth much (except to bean farmers, and the magic ones Jack got hold of). So if someone is full of beans, they are full of nothing, their words mean nothing, they have no knowledge, you shouldn’t give credence to anything they say.

    I never heard of bessbugs or Bessie bugs or the like, and never heard the expression out of pocket to mean anything other than a person paying for something with their own money.

  • Marilyn H. Collins

    Your lively and informative posts bring excitement to solving the mysteries behind the commonly-held, often contradictory, understanding of idioms. We need more passion and fascination with language. I appreciate your extraordinary gift of delving into the history of words and offering explanations through your daily writing tips.

  • venqax

    I must admit I’ve never heard of a bessy or a bess bug. I have heard “crazy as a bed bug” but never used it, or thought about the sensibility of the expression. Expressions are sometimes hard to unravel (isn’t head over heels how you are when you’re not falling?) Otherwise, I’m the reverse of BlueBird. I have always heard “full of beans” used to mean full of energy, usually of the mischievous kind, and mostly applied to children. I have never heard it, actually, to mean “full of it” in the other sense, as far as I am aware. And the first time I heard “out of pocket” it was to mean gone, out of contact, unavailable. “I’m sticking close-by today because I was out of pocket for so much of yesterday.” I remember when I heard it used, it struck me as being odd, but making sense. I even remember wondering if it was a Midwesternism because the person I heard use it was from Missouri.

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