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TWTS: How worms of destruction begat worms of wisdom

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Our listeners send us lots of fascinating theories about the origins of words. Yet, more often than not, we find ourselves saying, "That's a great story, but ..." before revealing the less-than thrilling truth.

Thanks to a question from our listener Tom Gryn, this is not one of those times. Gryn asked us, "Why do we call an avid reader a 'bookworm'? Did books actually have worms that ate them when they were parchments?"

While not exactly thrilling, it's interesting origin theory that happens to be correct.

Insects have been treating our books like all-you-can-eat literary buffets for centuries. They burrow through the boards and paper and make themselves right at home, munching on our precious pages. Thus, the term "bookworm" emerged in the 1600s to describe these creepy crawlies — be they beetles, lice, moths, termites, etc.

As you've probably noticed, none of the aforementioned beasties are actually worms. Chances are, the "worm" in "bookworm" is actually a very old meaning of the word that refers to the larvae of an insect, such as maggots or grubs.

In Old English, a "worm" could also refer to a contemptable person, which may be relevant to the figurative meaning of "bookworm." In the 1500s, there's evidence that "bookworm" could refer to someone who's devoted to reading, but it was often used as more of than insult than a compliment. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary cites a letter from 1580 that described someone as "a morning bookworm, an afternoon malt-worm," i.e. a drunkard.

In the early 19th century, Noah Webster defined "bookworm" as "a student closely attached to books, or addicted to study; also, a reader without judgment." In essence, Webster thought of a bookworm as someone who devours books indiscriminately, without discernment.

On a lighter note, a few years back, Professor Anne Curzan made a delightful cameo on an animated episode of the TruTV series Adam Ruins Everything. To represent her scholarly persona, the creators decided to depict her as a literal bookworm, complete with glasses and mortarboard.

This post-production interview with Curzan includes a screen grab from the animated episode, about 12 seconds in. Notice anything curious about Curzan's attire and that of the bookworm? That was purely by coincidence.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.