Help get this question out of my head!
October 1, 2010 5:49 PM   Subscribe

How did the word "earworm" come to mean something you can't get out of your head (like a song, etc)? Looking for the German etymology, if there is one.

I was a German major in college so a friend asked me the following:

"I'm trying to figure out how the German word "Ohrwurm" which originally meant a kind of treatment for ear diseases made from earwigs ( came to mean a song stuck in the head."

My Google-fu is failing me -- does anyone else have an answer for her?
posted by to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How's this? Earworm Origins. The comment thread includes a contribution from Prof. Kellaris, to whom, apparently, many internet sources attribute the term's coinage.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:04 PM on October 1, 2010

Interesting. I thought it might be from Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan.
posted by annsunny at 8:15 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's probably medieval in origins; during that time many diseases were blamed on worms causing them, perhaps because they were often accompanying them. A very widespread example is the Zahnwurm ("tooth worm"), a worm that was suspected to burrow into teeth and cause toothaches; I'd say that "Ohrwurm" was likely coined as an analogy to that, and that the homonymy to the insect is merely coincidence.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:24 AM on October 2, 2010

German Wikipedia claims that the English word indeed comes from German, and German Wikitionary has a fairly extensive etymology (in German).
posted by themel at 9:29 AM on October 2, 2010

Summary of that ethymology (German word is Ohrwurm)

Comes from auricula (late Latin, means auricle, or ear lobe), starts in 14th-something as ôrwurm. That one describes an insect that was dried and pulverized to cure sicknesses related to ears.
The "wurm" (worm) part comes from old German, where they described insect in general as
worms, there are still some remnants of this in modern German (Glühwürmchen).

Now the transition: People thought that the earworm moved very smoothly and nice, pleasing to the eye, somewhere in the 18/19th century, the word was used for people who were flattering you (the word smooth = geschmeidig, and the word flattering = schmeichelnd can both used for a bootlicker), whose words were crawling into your ears.
The association with music (again, flattering = schmeichelnd/einschmeichelnd can be used for music) started in 20th century.
posted by mathemagician at 8:16 PM on November 16, 2010

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