Bedbugs and Bessie Bugs
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.”
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.
Keep learning! Browse the Expressions category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
- How Many Tenses in English?
- 7 Patterns of Sentence Structure
- How Do You Determine Whether to Use Who or Whom?