Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 23, 2012



One of the 97 brand spanking new words in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s Eleventh Edition is earworm, a cognitively infectious musical agent, more informally known as one of those annoying tunes that you can’t get out of your mind.

Though earworms have haunted me my whole life, I promise to refrain from providing lists of likely tunes that will haunt you forever. The word earworm has interested me since it was first introduced to me some time in the late 1960s by an aunt who grew up in Germany during the 40s and 50s.

Only a year ago, most dictionary and etymology websites clearly credited James Kellaris, a Milwaukee professor, with the coinage of the word in 2001 (e.g. this AP story by Rachel Kipp). Others, like this Wikipedia article, credited Robert Frietag (a well-traveled primary teacher) for bringing the term to English in 1993. These Frietag & Kellaris claims curdled my cheese because (thanks to my Aunt Inge) my pals and I have been enjoying the word since I shared it at Columbus Junior High over four decades ago.

Today, a search for earworm etymology will produce over 40,000 hits. Thankfully, in the last year, many etymologists have dug a bit deeper, & while praising Kellaris’s research on the phenomenon of the earworm, have de-bunked the myth that he coined the word. I find no arguments debunking the Frietag origin, but I’m, pleased to say that at long last, most etymologists see earworm as a simple translation from the German word ohrwurm.

Confusing the issue is the fact that the German word ohrwurm also refers to dermaptera, the lowly earwig, a nasty little bug which has a tendency to make many of us squirm & whose name has inspired stories about earwigs climbing into people’s ears. The whole issue was likely further confused by a practice popular in “ancient times” (I can’t find where), of drying and grinding up dermaptera, then inserting the powder into infected ears as a medical treatment.

So I say bravo to hundreds of hard-working etymologists, to Merriam Webster’s Eleventh Edition, & of course, Aunt Inge, for the word earworm.

Good blogophiles, feel free to comment on all this hoopla, or share one of your most annoying, most invasive earworm tunes.


  1. You didn't say if your Aunt Inge was a German-speaker, but it would make sense if she was. She was probably using a meaning of the word common in German ever since the first oompah band started playing infectious ditties at ancient Octoberfests. How fun. I never heard the word until this decade, so I would have believed Mr. Kellaris (hanging out with German-Americans in Milwaukee?) or Mr. Freitag (another German?) had coined it. But maybe it was your Aunt Inge herself who brought it to us English speakers?

  2. Ha!
    I'll let Aunt Inge know that she may be the etymological typhoid Mary of earworms! And yes, she speaks German, English, & a couple other languages (you'd think she grew up in Europe or something).

  3. Sesame Street. My three year old grandson was just here. Come along to Sesame Street! Not a bad earworm as earworms go