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Jack Smith

Re a verse wise and witty, though not immemorial, my readers have bitten, bugged by instinct authorial

March 09, 1987|Jack Smith

As I noted here the other day, the famous journalist Ambrose Bierce, in his little book "Write It Right," urged against the use of the word bug :

" Bug for beetle , or for anything. Do not use it."

I observed that perhaps Bierce had never heard of the following charming verse:

Little bugs have littler bugs

Upon their backs to bite 'em,

And littler bugs have littler bugs

And on ad infinitum.

I assumed that the verse had been written after Bierce's time (he disappeared in Mexico in 1913), when bug had been accepted into standard use.

I first saw the verse 40 years ago when another reporter used it, in that form, in a story in the old downtown Daily News. He did not claim to have made it up, but he did not name its author. It is so easy to remember, that I have never forgotten it.

Once again, my readers rushed in to correct me.

Writes Grant Shepard of Ventura: "You will undoubtedly have heard from a number of admirers of the late Ogden Nash that the 'charming verse' which you did not attribute to him in your column on Ambrose Bierce was in fact his, and that you badly misquoted it. For the record, Nash wrote:

Big fleas have little fleas

Upon their backs to bite 'em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas

And so, ad infinitum. "

Irrelevantly, Shepard added, he was reminded of Nash's shortest poem, also about fleas:

Adam

Had 'em.

I was willing to concede authorship to the prolific Nash, although I do not think that the progression through big , little and lesser is superior to little, littler and littler. And I think bugs is a funnier word than fleas . But of course that's a matter of taste.

But wait.

Ted Melnechuk of San Diego attributed the poem to the brilliant Dublin-born satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and quoted exactly the same version attributed by Shepard to Nash.

That worried me, because it appeared to make a plagiarist of Nash, who was much too clever a versifier to steal from Swift or anyone else.

"Don't you agree," Melnechuk asked, "that Swift's progression from big to little to lesser better begins the ever-diminishing series abbreviated as 'ad infinitum' than does the repetition of littler in your version?"

As I've already said, no, I do not.

But wait.

M. Lewis Thompson of Yucca Valley wrote: "Your reference this morning to 'that charming verse' about the bugs ad infinitum , caused me to think that my recollection was different. I found it in Bartlett's, where it is ascribed to Jonathan Swift in his 'On Poetry: A Rhapsody' (1733). However, Bartlett's quotes it as:

So, naturalists observe, a flea

Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller still to bite 'em,

And so proceed ad infinitum.

Thus every poet, in his kind,

Is bit by him that comes behind.

Aha! So Nash did plagiarize Swift a bit, but he did transform Swift's idea into his own form.

Still, as Swift foresaw, he was "bit by him that comes behind."

Robert Irving of Northridge also ascribes the verse to Nash, though he quotes the third line as saying "these fleas" rather than "little fleas." I do not have the Nash verse, but I suspect that "little" is correct.

"I also disagree with Bierce," Irving says, "when he says 'Do not use it (bug).' Aside from uses which Bierce could never have dreamed of (e.g., computer 'bugs' which have to be debugged; electronic eavesdropping devices; VWs and other small cars), it is a technically correct word in entomology: 'a hemipterous insect, also called true bug , with a piercing, sucking mouthpiece.' "

I agree with Irving that bug is a useful word. More than that, I think it is a charming word. Much better than beetle , which is sort of menacing and capable of far broader use.

As I cautioned the other day, remember Archy before you squash a cockroach. A cockroach is certainly a bug, and Archy, at least, had intelligence and a soul, as we know from his writings.

I was reminded the other day by Dr. William Goldsmith of James Thurber's observation that many humorists fear that Robert Benchley has already done what they're doing, and better. He referred specifically to a piece I had written on the difficulty of opening packages, which of course Benchley had done 50 years ago.

Assuming that Benchley had also written about the intelligence of bugs, I looked in my "Benchley Roundup" and sure enough, there it was: "Do Insects Think?"

Noting, as I did, that entomologists tell us insects do not think, Benchley conducted his own experiment and concluded otherwise. He had a pet wasp named Pudge. One night, while working in his laboratory "with gin and other chemicals," he spilled a tray of cards cataloguing his research on larvae. He was worried that the wasp would spend the night trying to pick up and refile the cards. But in the morning he found the wasp asleep.

From this data Benchley concluded that the wasp was intelligent, because, knowing nothing about larvae, it was smart enough not to try to put the cards back in order.

On the other hand, I'm not absolutely sure that a wasp is a bug.

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