Get to the Root of the Story About Earwigs Eating People's Brains

Earwig in Ear
The belief that earwigs crawl into people's ears goes back to ancient times. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Of all the insects on earth, perhaps none are quite as misunderstood as the lowly earwig. Found throughout the world and growing up to two inches long, this member of the insect order dermaptera resembles a winged ant, only with a weird, miniature plier-like set of pinchers protruding from their back ends.

Brains: They're What's for Dinner

Language experts have yet to reach a consensus on the etymology of the word earwig.

 Some sources say the name originated as 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 set of wings. Other sources go further, translating the word to mean "ear insect," "ear creature," or "ear wiggler," given the old wives tale that earwigs burrow into human brains through the ear canal. For what purpose, and why this particular insect and not, say, a roly-poly or doodlebug, who knows?

Origins of Earwig Superstitions

Regarding the origin of earwig brain-boring superstitions, the Columbia Encyclopedia posits 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.

You're probably thinking it's quite a stretch to imagine that earwigs got their reputation for burrowing in people's ears because they smell like earwax.

No doubt. Most attempts to explain the origins of superstitions rely on imaginative guesswork. This 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Historical References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.

Interestingly, it includes a remedy, according to Philemon Holland's 1601 English translation of the passage: "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."

Mind you, Pliny also claimed that a piece of wood bitten off a tree that has been struck by lightning, provided that one held one's arms behind one's back while doing so, will provide instant relief for a toothache.

Several hundred years later, and the poor earwig is still considered a potential 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

Laughable? Most certainly. Then again, there is the occasional instance of an earwig actually getting near a human ear, so no wonder the myth perpetuates.


Bottom line, though, is that the earwig's fabled fondness for entering the human ear and boring into the brain, supposedly causing insanity and/or death, is balderdash.

"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 Dept. of Entomology.

So let's grant the experts their due. Insects do, on occasion, crawl into people's ears, but apart from varying degrees of discomfort and alarm they usually don't cause any great harm when that happens.