The Truth Behind the Most Popular Earwig Myth

Do the insects really eat people's brains?

Close-Up Of Earwig
Aukid Phumsirichat / EyeEm / Getty Images

Of all the insects on Earth, perhaps none is quite as misunderstood as the lowly earwig. Found throughout the world, this member of the insect order Dermaptera resembles a winged ant, with a miniature, plier-like set of pincers protruding from its abdomen. The insect is believed, according to an ancient but persistent myth, to burrow through the ear canal and eat people's brains.

Etymology of "Earwig"

Language experts have yet to reach a consensus on the origin of the word earwig. Some sources say the name derives from an Old English phrase for beetle. Others posit that it's a corruption of the phrase "ear wing," referring to the ear-like shape of the insect's hind wings. Other sources go further, translating the word as "ear insect," "ear creature," or "ear wiggler," a reference to the old wives' tale that earwigs burrow into human brains through the ear canal. How did the earwig end up earning this unpleasant reputation—as opposed to, say, the roly-poly or the doodlebug?

Superstitions

Regarding the origin of earwig brain-boring superstitions, the Columbia Encyclopedia states the following:

The superstition that earwigs crawl through the ears and into the brains of sleeping persons probably derives from their nocturnal habits and the tarry or waxy odor of a secretion of their abdominal glands.

It may sound like a stretch to claim that earwigs got their reputation for burrowing in people's ears because they smell like earwax. Unfortunately, most attempts to explain the origins of the superstition rely on imaginative guesswork. This one is no exception.

Historical References

The earliest known mention of an earwig-like creature entering the human ear can be found in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, written in the first century A.D. Philemon Holland's 1601 English translation of the text includes a remedy for such insect intrusions: "If an earwig or such like vermin be gotten into the eare, make no more ado but spit into the same, and it will come forth anon."

Several hundred years later, the poor earwig was still considered a pest:

"It appears to be a common belief almost everywhere that the Earwig creeps into the ears of persons sleeping in the open air, passes thence into the brain, and causes death." — A Natural History of the Animal Kingdom, William S. Dallas, 1856

"Ear-wig, or Forficula auricularis, L. a well known insect, which has received its name from penetrating into the human ear, where it causes the most acute pains, and even, as some have asserted, eventual death." — The Domestic Encyclopedia, Willich and Mease, 1803

"The creature called forficula or earwig is said to make its way into the ear, and to occasion not only deafness, but violent pain by its biting; and there is an instance on record of a woman, in whose ear a nest of these infects were lodged, and reduced her to the greatest distress." — A Practical System of Surgery, James Latta, 1795

These descriptions of the insect seem laughable today. Nevertheless, there is the occasional instance of an earwig actually getting near a human ear, so it's no wonder the myth lives on.

Scientific Consensus

The bottom line on earwigs is that there's no scientific evidence for the insects' fabled fondness for the human ear. The idea that the little creatures want to feast on human brains is even more far-fetched.

"There is no truth to this myth," writes John Meyer, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.

"In fact," adds master gardener Judy Sedbrook of the Colorado State Cooperative Extension, "other than an occasional pinch, earwigs can't harm people."

"Though they may try to pinch if captured and handled, they do not harm people," confirms the Iowa State University Department of Entomology.

In other words, the scientific consensus is that earwigs are harmless. Insects do, on occasion, crawl into people's ears, but apart from varying degrees of discomfort and alarm, they usually don't cause any significant damage.