Grammar

Earwig or Earworm? One Made Headlines Last Week

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When we learned about a popular actor’s tragic condition, we also heard about a little secret device. Was it an earwig or earworm?

Actor Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting after his family announced he is suffering from a mysterious medical condition called aphasia. We also learned he relied on a little device to help him get through a 2020 film. But do you call that device an earwig or earworm?

Well, there’s a correct answer, but it turns out both words are related.

Aphasia is the loss of the ability to understand or express language. It is usually caused by brain damage, often from a stroke.

It’s not clear if Willis had a stroke at some point. But friends recently speculated he could have suffered brain damage during a head injury in 2002.

One important note: The cover image for this post, incidentally, is as close as I could find to what the little device Willis was shown wearing during the shooting of his 2020 film, American Siege. The real thing is much smaller that’s barely visible unless you’re looking for it.

I’m sorry to tell you however, that you’ll have to know about a nightmarish legend involving a creepy little bug to understand the difference.

So let’s jump in.

Earwig

Have you ever listened to a commercial jingle or a song on the radio and it seemed to “stick” in your brain? If so, you know one definition of an earwig.

Here are a couple of examples. Listen at your own risk!

One of the most recent commercial jingles that got caught in my head was an old spot for Kroger. Remember the catchy tune, “Let’s Go Krogering”?

The latest song to get stuck in my head lately is David Benoit’s “Kei’s Song:”

If either becomes an earwig for you, I hope you can lose it quickly!

In the Bruce Willis story, a few news reports showed a still of Willis in a scene that happened to show a tiny little device in his ear. That device, also dubbed an earwig, is used to feed an actor his lines. You’ll find similar devices used even on the Broadway stage, although most actors probably wouldn’t admit to using them. Consider them the high-tech equivalent of the cue card.

The definition of an earwig as a melody that you become temporarily unable to shake or an audio prompting device comes from a much darker story.

That brings us to the third definition of earwig.

In this definition, the earwig is a creepy-crawly: a little insect that has pinchers resembling forceps at the end of its abdomen. You can see photos of them at Wikipedia if you really want to.

Do earwigs actually try to get into human ears? Well, that’s the nightmarish part: we generally regard this as a convincing though disturbing urban legend. The Collins Dictionary refers to that idea as a “baseless notion.”

Thank goodness for that!

Earworm

So what’s an earworm? Take a deep breath: I’m not about to tell you that there’s a second creature trying to make its way into your ear canal.

Yes, I still remember that scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Yikes!

But the earworm is an alternate term used to describe that song or tune that gets stuck in your head. You might even have heard it called “Stuck Song Syndrome,” although you might sound a bit silly using so formal a term for so annoying a problem.

The earworm likewise refers to the notion of something crawling into your ear and getting “stuck” there. So it borrows a bit of the urban legend of the earwig insect. But the earworm is all about the melody you can’t shake.

In any case, we can hope Bruce Willis is able to recover from his condition. To a far less important degree, we can hope we can shake the next earwig or earworm that gets stuck in our head.

What was the last tune you couldn’t get out of your mind?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

1 Comment

  • Before I read this, I always bought an earwig was a pest…or possibly an earwig might be he British equivalent to our ear worm. Now I’ll read on and see if I’m correct or off my rocker, out in the weeds, etc..

    Okay! I know of the insect, which is not a pest and does not, in fact, get into our ears. Yikes, how right that would be if that happened. Oddly enough I’d lived until now, three month into my 55th year, tonight was the first time I heard the term “ear worm” used to describe a song your brain fixated on and you wish you’d never heard!

    I’m so out of tune with news. Bruce Willis has aphasia from a twenty-year old concussion? A TIA should not leave behind a neurological disability, only a full on stroke normally leaves behind marks of what part the brain was affected. Pretty scary. My mother’s first stroke robbed her of the ability to communication, a profound shock for a woman who valued conversation as much or maybe higher than anyone. But I refuse to be on that path.

    I do feel bad for him. Especially for an actor, who needs his words.

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