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ear·wig (îrwĭg)
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n.
Any of various elongate insects of the order Dermaptera, having a pair of usually pincerlike appendages protruding from the rear of the abdomen. Also called dermapteran.
tr.v. ear·wigged, ear·wig·ging, ear·wigs
To attempt to influence by persistent confidential argument or talk.

[Middle English erwig, from Old English ēarwicga : ēare, ear; see EAR1 + wicga, insect; see wegh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

Word History: According to a widespread folk tradition, earwigs enter the ears of sleeping people and burrow into their brains, eating a network of tunnels through the head and even leaving their eggs to hatch within the skull. In fact, this belief is completely false. An earwig, being a creature that prefers moist dark places, may very, very rarely find its way into the human ear, but it will not eat through the eardrum. Earwigs eat a variety of plants, insects, and decaying organic matter, not human flesh. But the folk belief in the deadly earwig is very old and has remained persistent. An Old English text of around AD 1000 even includes a remedy with ēarwicgan, "against earwigs," in which a thick blade of grass or straw is used to drive the earwig out of the ear. The Modern English word earwig itself descends from Old English ēarwicga, a compound of ēar, "ear," and wicga, a word denoting some kind of insect, and this compound obviously reflects the folk tradition about the earwig's horrific habits. The second part of the compound, wicga, is no doubt a member of the same family of words that includes the Modern English verbs wiggle (from or akin to the Middle Low German wiggelen) and wag (from Middle English waggen). This group of terms denotes quick movements of various sorts, and the prehistoric ancestor of the Old English word wicga probably meant something like "wiggler."

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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