Bugs and monkeys

Thomas Tompion

Senior Member
English - England
In a flying visit to another web forum today, I noticed this comment:

Is anyone else infuriated by the American usage of 'bug' for absolutely any insect, beetle or arachnid whether flying or crawling, and of the generic term 'monkey' for all primates including the great apes?

I'm not infuriated by it, partly because I was completely ignorant of it. Are these correct American usages?
  • Aardvark01

    Senior Member
    British English (Midlands)
    I'm familiar with both through American films (Men In Black, Starship Troopers...) and programs (where Darwinism is debated no distinction is drawn between ape and monkey by the theory's detractors), but also through English authors:
    In his 'Hitchhiker's Guide' Douglas Adams has his character Zaphod Beeblebrox call the earth man 'monkey boy' by way of being patronising.
    In his 'Discworld' novels Terry Pratchett has numerous characters make the mistake of calling the librarian a monkey when he is an orangutan who does not take such insults lightly.
    Both these authors are famous for their social commentry.
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    Senior Member
    Hi, concerning bugs, Merriam-Webster seems to include spiders:

    1 a: an insect or other creeping or crawling invertebrate (as a spider or centipede)

    They are relatively open to inclusion of apes among monkeys:

    1: a nonhuman primate mammal with the exception usually of the lemurs and tarsiers ; especially : any of the smaller longer-tailed catarrhine or platyrrhine primates as contrasted with the apes

    (In my native language, apes are just big monkeys).


    Senior Member
    Interesting question, TT, and a complicated one.

    If I heard someone say I don't like bugs, I probably would understand this to mean that they don't like any members of Class Insecta, including those that crawl, fly, or just sit there. I would not necessarily assume this to include spiders and centipedes, but would not be surprised to find out that it was meant that way. But I think most Americans do make instinctive differentiations when they see and classify a particular arachnid or insect. Here's my attempt at a brief colloquial American taxonomy of creepy-crawly things:

    A relatively small unidentified flying insect = a fly
    A relatively large unidentified flying insect = a wasp
    A spider = a spider
    An unidentified crawling insect (or a spider too small or remote to be identified as such) = a bug

    Many insects are commonly identified by colloquial species names (ladybugs, fireflies, roaches, bees...).

    Monkey = any primate would be common for children. I can easily imagine a parent saying to a child at a zoo, Hey, let's go see the monkeys! (consciously meaning to include any chimps and orangutans available for viewing). So certainly we all have this possibility in our lexicon. But in a serious conversation between adults, I would expect primates to be called primates, chimpanzees to be called chimpanzees, and so on. And I have never heard a gorilla specifically referred to as a monkey by anyone of any age.


    Senior Member
    (San Francisco) English
    "Bug" is just the colloquial word when you're referring to crawling, flying, gross insect-ish things. It's definitely more common if you're talking about all insects, arachnids, etc. as a group or if you're talking about something you can't identify. An old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip has Calvin mis-identifying bats as bugs since they're evil, fly, and suck blood (in his opinion). (Of course, no one actually thinks bats are bugs, but that shows the kinds of characteristics he's associating with the word 'bug'.)

    To me, 'monkey' refers to simian primates with tails unless I am talking about entertainment. People commonly talk about "fat kid and a monkey" comedy, nearly all of which actually features chimps, not monkeys. Check out any recent discussion of the movie Speed Racer for a bunch of Americans flaming each other over this use of 'monkey'. It clearly infuriates plenty of AE speakers too.