Language & Literature

Do Earwigs Really Live in Our Ears?

do earwigs really live in our ears

There has long been a myth that earwigs use human ears either to lay their eggs or to live in and feed off our ear wax, or other similar things. It sounds pretty gruesome, doesn’t it? After all, who would actually like the idea of an insect living inside their ear? But do earwigs really live in our ears?

Fortunately for us, it is not true. Despite their name, earwigs don’t actually live in our ears and neither do they use them to lay eggs. They much prefer their normal habitat of nests under rocks and logs or in flowerbeds. So where does the earwig get its name?


Old English Origins

Yet the name itself suggests that this has been a myth for a long time, so let’s examine the name. It can easily be split into two parts: ear and wig. These two parts both come from Old English; which is what we call the language as it was spoken when it was first written down, right up to the tenth century. So this would include the period of Kind Alfred the Great; he of the burning cakes.

In Old English, the words were eare and wicga. The first part, which you can recognise quite easily, meant ‘ear’. But the second part, wicga, meant ‘insect, beetle, worm’. The interesting thing is that it came from a root that did not have anything to do with insects at all, but instead meant ‘wiggle’.

Think about how even today we say ‘wiggly worm’; or think about how you would describe the movement of a caterpillar. You can see how this word came to be associated with insects. So if we put the two parts of our word together again, we have ‘ear-insect’. It seems that our very early linguistic forebears did indeed believe that earwigs lived in the ear.

Blame it on the Romans

But where did this myth that they dwell in our ears come from? It is not unique to English; in German it is known as Ohrwurm, or ‘earworm’, and it is the same in Welsh with pryf clustiog; while in French it is perce-oreille, or ‘ear-piercer’.

To find the origins of the myth, we have to go back in time all the way to the days of the Romans. In around 77 CE, Roman naval commander and writer Pliny the Elder published his work Historia Naturalis, or Natural History.

In it he writes about a great deal of the natural world, including insects. It is here that the myth may have begun, as he writes about earwigs getting into the ear. Perhaps he saw one that had happened to go into the ear by chance, much as a fly or a spider might, and jumped to the wrong conclusions.

The Pincer Insect

Other languages have taken the name from the apearance of the insect; in Italian it is known as forbicina, and in Spanish it is tijereta, while Greek has ψαλίδα [psalida] All three of these translate as ‘little scissors’, deriving from the pincers that the earwig uses to catch its prey.


Featured Image by Tom Bullock / Flickr 


Art & History

Early English – The Latin Alphabet

In our last post, we discovered the runic alphabet and the Futhorc, and now we are going to look at what came next. The Latin alphabet.

The Futhorc was gradually replaced by the Latin alphabet. However, it seems that the Latin alphabet was not perfectly suited to represent English, which contained sounds that did not exist in Latin, and so people adapted it with the addition of a few runes: thorn to represent ‘th’ and wynn to represent ‘w’, as well as a few adaptations in usage of the already existing Latin letters in order to make them better suited to representing English sounds.


Art & History

Early English Writing – Runes and the Futhorc


Did you know that English hasn’t always been written using the alphabet that we know today? There have been several changes in the way we write over the centuries. We shall start by looking at the runic script. You may already have heard of runes, and perhaps you know that the term refers to some form of writing. We’ll look at runes and the early English alphabet called Futhorc. 

Runic Script

First of all, what are runes? Contrary to what legend and hazy modern stories may tell us, runes are not magical, and they are not an exclusive part of an ancient Celtic religion or only associated with druids. Neither are they symbols of the mysterious or spiritual. It is very simple. Runes are letters.

Runic script is a system of writing that is surprisingly close to what we use today in its concept: runes are the letters in a set of alphabets (sometimes called ‘runic alphabets’). These alphabets were used to write Germanic languages. Not simply German as we know it today, but other languages in the same family. This means that it includes English. In fact, the earliest form of writing for English was runic.

The very early form of English that evolved from a language we call Proto-Germanic, which we believe gave rise to many other languages such as German, Dutch, Swedish and others, is known by the term Old English and sometimes also Anglo-Saxon. The second term reflects the names of the Germanic tribes which are believed to have formed the main group of speakers that arrived on the British Isles to displace Celtic languages. It is this early form of English, Old English, which was written in runes.


The Futhorc or Fuþorc

The version of runes used to write Old English is known as the Futhorc. It was developed from the older system of runes used to write other, earlier West Germanic languages, known as the Futhark (fuþark). This Futhark consisted of 24 runes, and the early English speakers found it necessary to expand that and add extra runes to reflect the changes in pronunciation, or the sounds that gradually became part of the language. 

They started by adding two extra runes, and this gradually increased until the Futhorc consisted of as many as 33 runes, or letters. You may be thinking that this is rather a lot – but then consider that our modern alphabet uses combinations of more than one letter in order to represent one sound, such as ‘th’ or ‘sh’ and so on. The Futhorc has a separate letter, the thorn þ, to represent ‘th’. 

Now, in modern English, we use the Latin alphabet with a few modifications to write our language. The Latin alphabet was first adapted from the Etruscan alphabet, which was in turn derived from the Greek alphabet, and this is where we get its name from.

We call it ‘alphabet’ from the first two letters, A and B, which in Greek are alpha and beta: alphabet. So what about this ancient runic system? Where does the name ‘futhorc’ come from?

There is nothing mysterious about it. It is not an arcane word with some sort of symbolic meaning requiring years of study to understand. When we break it down, it is the same idea as the alphabet. The name ‘futhorc’ derives, or comes from, the first six letters of the runic alphabet. These are feoh (F), ur (U), thorn (TH), os (O), rad (R) and cen (C); FUTHORC, as you can see.



It is essentially the same concept as the alphabet that we use today: each rune, or letter, was used to represent a phoneme, or sound, the basic building blocks of our words.

The Futhorc was used for several centuries to write down English, and for a while when the Latin alphabet was first used for English, the two were both in use at the same time. You can even see some early monuments which have both systems of writing side by side!

Runes were used from around the fifth century to the ninth or tenth centuries in English, although the Germanic Futhark is much older than that.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the Latin Alphabet, and tell you where you can go to take a look at RL examples of the Futhorc and the Latin Alphabet.








News & Politics

What is a Referendum?

what is a referendum

What is a Referendum?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the referendum on membership of the European Union. It seems that we cannot turn on the television without hearing about it! But what is a referendum?

A referendum is a vote, not an election by which we choose the people to represent us, but a choice in which all the people who can vote are asked to accept or reject (not accept) a course of action.

You can find out more about our main election, the General Election here. 

What this means is that voters are called to say yes or no to a question. You might think that this sounds perfectly reasonable; why shouldn’t everyone have a say in what our country is doing? But it is not as simple as that.

Most questions are decided by votes in Parliament; after all, this is why we elect them to represent us, and in practical terms, we cannot all expect to be experts on all the subjects that must be covered by the government. So this doesn’t happen very often.

Referendums in the UK

In fact, in the UK there have only been twelve, yes, just 12 referendums since 1973. Twelve referendums over the course of 43 years, of which only two have covered the entire country. You can see that this is not a large number.

You might be surprised to learn that the first to cover the whole country was in 1975, and it was on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), which is what the European Union was then known as. The second was in 2011, and related to a reform in the voting system known as Alternative Vote.

All the other major referendums in the UK have been related to questions of devolving power – or the governing of the distinct regions of England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Origins of the Word Referendum

The word came into use in English in 1847. But at that time, it was mostly about Switzerland, whose system of direct democracy involved (and continues to involve) a large number of referendums. The word was coined, or created, from Latin referendum, which means “thing to be referred”. This is because, in a referendum, the decision is referred to the people.

The word referendum in Latin is from the verb referre. This verb means “to bring back, to take back’, which is the very essence of a referendum: a question is being brought back to the people who will be affected by it.

What is the Plural of Referendum?

A lot of people think that the plural of referendum is ‘referenda’, but is it really?

Referendum is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural).  The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.

The Oxford English Dictionary

What does that mean?

A gerund is a grammar term used in Latin and other languages. In Latin, ‘referenda’ would mean ‘more than one thing to be considered’, whereas a referendum as a vote tends to be on one single issue.

We can use ‘referendum’ as a plural if we wish, but ‘referendums’ has also become normalised in English, as the word has been accepted in popular use in English, and of course the usual way to make a plural in English is to add ‘s’.


You can find out more about the British political system in these posts.


The UK General Election – An Explanation for Kids

How to Jump into Politics

What is it Like to Be an MP?


Women in Politics: Be The Change You Want To See


Language & Literature

The Great Vowel Shift

the great vowel shift

If you have learnt a foreign language, or if you are bilingual in another European language, you may have noticed that there are a number of words that are similar to words in English. Perhaps you may even have been told that some of them are derived from Latin or Greek, or that they have Germanic roots. But why is the pronunciation so often so different in English?