According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘earwig’ comes from the ‘ancient and widespread (but false) belief that the garden pest went into people's ears’. Another suggested etymology is 'ear-wing', a reference to the wing's shape.
While the myth that earwigs eat into your head and lay eggs in your brain is nonsense, there are a number of documented cases where earwigs and other arthropods have found their way into a human ear. The discoverer of the source of the Nile, John Hanning Speke (1827-64) once fell asleep ‘covered with a host of small black beetles’, and awoke with one buzzing away in his ear. After trying to get it out with melted butter he dug it out with his penknife, damaging his ear, and causing infection and severe disfigurement. He later claimed: ‘For many months the tumour made me almost deaf, and ate a hole between the ear and the nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed. Six or seven months after this accident happened, bits of the beetle - a leg, a wing, or parts of the body - came away in the wax.’
If you turn up at A&E with an earwig in your ear they might try to flush it out with mineral oil or the local anaesthetic lidocaine. Both methods were tested in a single case when a patient arrived at a hospital with an earwig in each ear. The mineral oil was successful in one ear while the lidocaine in the other made the second earwig exit at speed before being stamped on by a nurse.
Two species of Malayan earwig feed exclusively on the body oozings and dead skin of naked bats.
The ancient, universal and completely untrue belief that earwigs bore into people’s brains through their ears is reflected in the words for ‘earwig’ in many languages. No matter what their word for ‘ear’ the superstition persists.
In German it is ohrwurm (‘ear-worm’); in Afrikaans it’s oorkruiper (‘ear-creeper’); in Turkish kulagakacan (‘ear-fugitive’); in French perce-oreille (‘ear-piercer’).
The Danish, Dutch, Hungarian, Portuguese, Romanian and Russian words for earwig also contain the word ‘ear’.
In Manx, the word for earwig is the same as the word for ‘dung-fork’.
In Scots-Gaelic it shares a meaning with the word for ‘a mouth overcharged so that the cheeks swell out’ while the Hungarian word for earwig is the same as the word for ‘catchy’, as in a catchy song.
The Spanish have two words for earwig: contraplumas, which also means ‘pen-knife’, and tijereta, which also means a ‘scissor-kick’. The Italian for earwig is forbicina, which means ‘little scissors’.
The scientific name for the best-known species of earwig, the common earwig, is Forficula auricularia. It translates from Latin as ‘a small pair of scissors pertaining to the ears’.
Only one species of earwig is any good at flying.
If an earwig got into someone's ear, Pliny recommended spitting in their ear to remove it.
The European or Black earwig has a spare penis in case the first one snaps off.