Reader, Elsie W., wrote: “Thanks a bunch! When you quoted from The Gambler song, you gave me an earworm. I haven’t been able to get Kenny Rogers out of my head since I read that column.”
Sorry about that Elsie, and thanks for a great column idea.
An “earworm” is a song that gets into your head and won’t go away. Earworm is a fairly recent coinage, although other terms used to describe this irritating phenomenon have also arisen over the years. For example, haunting melody was used as early as 1963, and now and then we hear of stuck song syndrome.
Both these latter two phrases beautifully describe that song in your head. Certainly the melody haunts you, and that song is definitely stuck there. However, earworm is the expression most often used today.
Despite this, earworm is a “non-word,” according to Oxford. The Oxford Dictionary of Non-Words is a compilation of words submitted to and rejected by Oxford’s editorial board.
Oxford won’t use the word “rejected” when discussing these words because, depending upon future usage, such words might some day find their way into the OED.
The most comprehensive dictionary ever published, the OED contains 750,000 words. Its editors explain that once a word is in the dictionary, it’s there forever, so the board tries to ensure any new word suggested has a reasonable chance of actually becoming part of our vocabulary.
Many sources attribute earworm to Cincinnati University Professor James Kellaris and date it to 2003. Profesor Kelllaris denies this, saying he borrowed a term already in use. He says he has tried to correct things on Wikipedia without success.
Also, earworm had already been noted by 1993 on BBC Radio, and still earlier (1989) by an unknown radio voice. I first heard it on CBC in the early 2000s.
It’s been suggested that earworm is a direct translation of the German Ohrwurm, even though such a borrowing was unnecessary.
Langenscheidts’ Worterbuchen defines der Ohrwurm as “earwig.” Earwig, from the Old English earwicga (ear insect), refers to any insect thought to penetrate someone’s head via the ear.
Earwig and earworm, as they refer to insects, appear in many, but not all, dictionaries — American Heritage, Nelson Canadian and Oxford. In the insect world, an earworm is properly called corn earworm and the ears it penetrates are ears of corn.
So it seems unlikely any scholar would bother
to translate a German word when that word al-ready exists in English. Still, earworm is fascinating
usage and an excellent label for that haunting melody.
The verb phrase, to put a bug in someone’s ear (to give private information), originated in the 1940s. To worm one’s way in, probably from 1845, suggests “to enter or penetrate stealthily, like a worm” (American Slang).
Perhaps this last saying, coupled with the idea of a bug in the ear, had something to do with calling a song that won’t go away an earworm. It’s as good a guess as any, and better than unnecessarily translating some foreign word.