Do Earwigs Crawl in People's Ears and Eat Their Brains?

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

Claim 

Earwigs are so named because they crawl into sleeping people's ears and eat their brains, causing madness and/or death.

Status

False

Historical Examples:

"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

Analysis

While there is some dispute over the linguistic origin of the name "earwig" (see below), there's no disagreement among entomologists as to the insect's fabled fondness for entering the human ear and boring into the brain, supposedly causing insanity and/or death — it's 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.

Etymology of "Earwig"

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

Some sources (mainly older ones) say the name originated as an Old English phrase meaning "ear insect," "ear creature," or perhaps "ear wiggler," citing the old wives' tale as its direct inspiration. Others conjecture it's a corruption of the phrase "ear wing," referring to the ear-like shape of the insect's hind set of wings.

Take your pick.

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. I agree. Most attempts to explain the origins of superstitions rely on imaginative guesswork. This is no exception.

The earliest known historical reference to earwigs 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. "If an earwig or such like vermin be gotten into the eare," reads Philemon Holland's 1601 English translation of the passage, "make no more ado but spit into the same, and it will come forth anon." Mind you, this same source claims 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.

Sources and further reading:
• "Earwig." Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 1898.
• "Earwigs." Online Etymology Dictionary.
• "Earwigs." Iowa State Univ. Dept. of Entomology.
• "Earwigs." Colorado State Cooperative Extension.
• "Lend Me Your Earwigs." American Entomologist, Winter 2007.