For this week’s Wordy Wednesday, I originally thought we’d follow on from the unintentional theme we seem to have going this week – book addiction – and talk about all those wonderful words that can be used to describe our addiction (yes, I’m totally including you in it).
There are many of them – bibliophilia, tsundoku (a drive to buying books that don’t read), and lesesucht* (reading addiction – see also: lesewut, or reading rage and leserei, or reading mania) to name but a few. And then, of course, there’s good old ‘bookworm’ – which is where my research went careening off in another direction.
I’m a Bookworm, Loud and Proud!
I don’t know about you, but I find that being called a bookworm is rather a source of pride. Yes, I absolutely devour books (in an entirely metaphorical sense – fret not), and I’m not ashamed of that.
What’s more, I’ve always assumed that the term is derived from those little bugs that like to more literally munch their way through books. The Oxford Dictionary calls them “the larva of a wood-boring beetle which feeds on the paper and glue in books”, but also the term has referred to spider beetles, silverfish, and moths too.
Sure, being compared to these little critters is not the most flattering, but it makes sense – right? We’re metaphorically doing what they do literally. It’s an easy link to make and sure, that fact probably helped bolster the term being used for humans too.
Except, interestingly, that’s not where the term ‘bookworm’ in the sense that we use it originally comes from
Regardless of any pride we may feel today, being called a bookworm was once a terrible insult, one used when someone reads too much (as if there’s such a thing as reading too much). The Merriam-Webster dictionary says:
The worm in that epithet for the constant reader does not refer to larvae or the earthworm, as some children’s library posters might have you believe, and does not allude to the figurative devouring of books. Rather, the sense of worm being used is the one applied to a human being who is an object of contempt, and since Elizabethan times, the human bookworm has been looked upon with varying degrees of disapproval.
For a long time, being called a bookworm implied that you were self-absorbed, that you were lazy, and good for nothing. Ben Jonson once called someone a “whore-son bookworm”, and the word ‘bookworm’ was often prefixed with the word ‘mere’. Mere bookworms…
A bookworm, rather than being someone who devours books, was indeed someone who was addicted to books in the most negative sense, and someone who would read anything and everything, without discernment or judgement. A kind of bookish slut, then, or a reading tart. A slattern who cares not for the quality of the object itself but merely the pleasure derived from it. (Is it bad that I feel that description fits me pretty perfectly?)
In much the same way as feminists reclaim insults such as ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’, so book lovers have reclaimed the insult ‘bookworm’. Today, the term has a much more positive connotation, and being called a bookworm is indeed a good thing.
Rather than referring to sluttishness and addiction, it now refers to love and devotion – the scarlet woman got married and settled down, perhaps. Rather than being someone to look down on, bookworms are now embraced in society, and that’s exactly how it should be. And if we have to be considered literary floozies as part of that? Well so be it.
*I might come back to this word and all its derivation at a later date… what a fascinating concept.