cute as a bug’s ear

“Cute as a bug’s ear” means very charming and attractive, and possibly works on the principle that the smaller the thing is the cuter it will be. It is usually used to describe a child. It was first seen in print, with this meaning, in 1868.

Cute and keen were two of the most overused slang words of the late 1920s and 1930s.

The idiom actually makes no sense, since bugs don’t have ears. Many of them can detect sound, but none of them are equipped with anything resembling a human ear.

The phrase originated in the southern US in the latter part of the 1800s. But no one thought that bugs’ ears were cute. What they did think, because insects can detect very minuscule and high-pitched sounds, is that they were “acute.”

“Cute” meant the same as “acute” in 1700s England. Nathan Bailey defined it in The Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1731: “Cute: sharp, quick-witted, shrewd.”

In 1848, the US romantic poet James Russell Lowell used the term with the “sharp; shrewd” meaning in The Biglow Papers. Another early example of “cute as a bug’s ear” is found in a story in the South Carolina newspaper the Charleston Sunday News, June 1891.

From around that time onwards, in the US, “cute” began to mean “pretty or charming” though the earlier meaning persisted for much longer in the UK, where it is still used. Mystery writer Agatha Christie once wrote, “She might be too cute to fall into the trap.”

Similar phrases came later, all of them with the modern meaning of “pretty or adorable.” For example: cute as a kitten, cute as a button, cute as a cupcake, cute as a bug in a rug.

And then there was James Joyce, who wrote in Ulysses, “…and cute as a shithouse rat.” For some reason, this version didn’t catch on.

  One thought on “cute as a bug’s ear

  1. April 20, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    Haha! Surely Joyce was saying the opposite! And I’m guessing that the “bug in a rug” simile was inspired purely by the rhyme, because no one wants bugs in their rugs.
    It’s interesting how the meanings of words can change completely with time.


    • April 21, 2022 at 6:48 am

      It IS interesting. And I’m amazed at how quickly, in this age of instant communication, some modern words are given a slanted meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

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