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See also: ear worm and ear-worm



A larva of the moth Helicoverpa zea, one of the two species called the corn earworm (sense 2).
A male common earwig or European earwig (Forficula auricularia), formerly known as an earworm (sense 3).

From ear +‎ worm; senses 1 and 3 (“tune that keeps replaying in one’s head”; “earwig”) are a calque of German Ohrwurm (tune that pops up in one’s memory all the time; earwig)[1] (from the idea of a creature burrowing into the ear, an erroneous belief where earwigs are concerned), while sense 2 (“moth larva”) refers to the fact that these pests infest, among other things, ears of maize or sweet corn.



earworm (plural earworms)

  1. A tune that keeps replaying in one's head or that one keeps thinking about, especially if unwanted.
    Synonym: brainworm
    • 2005, “Klymaxx: Meeting in the Ladies Room (Constellation, 1984)”, in Kim Cooper and David Smay, editors, Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed, New York, N.Y.: Routledge, →ISBN, page 132:
      The chorus [of "Meeting in the Ladies Room" by Klymaxx] spawned an earworm so potent that women still mutter it as they exit for a bathroom break twenty years later.
    • 2005, Brain Stableford, chapter 2, in Kiss the Goat: A Twenty-first Century Ghost Story, Holicong, Pa.: Prime Books, →ISBN, pages 15-16:
      "It's been haunting me," she said. / "Yeah, well," he said, weakly. "Sometimes tunes do that." [...] "I don't mean that I heard it once before and caught an earworm. [...]"
    • 2007, John Garate, “Tell a Story in Song”, in Stories from the Living Room: A Golden Heritage from the Old West, 2nd edition, [Bloomington, Ind.]: Xlibris, →ISBN, page 81:
      My Mom has a special gift—or curse—depending on how you look at it. She suffers from ear worms. That's when you have songs runnin' around in your head and can't shut them off. All day long, at the ranch, Mom would go about her work, singin' and whistlin'.
    • 2009, Steve Goodman, “1971: The Earworm”, in Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Technologies of Lived Abstraction), Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, →ISBN, page 147:
      Earworms are the virological vectors onto which sonic branding latches. [...] A commonly cited species within memetics, the earworm is the catchy tune that you cannot get out of your head, the vocal refrain, the infectious rhythm or the addictive riff.
    • 2012, Nick Coleman, chapter 22, in The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, published 2013, →ISBN, page 236:
      She does not regard her ear-worms as anything other than an incidental irritant in her life. Unlike Jane, I have an ear-worm all the time – literally all the time – from the moment I wake up to the moment I zonk out; [...]
    • 2014, Lauren Morrill, “Sloane Devon”, in Being Sloane Jacobs, New York, N.Y.: Delacorte Press, →ISBN, page 256:
      And with the way he's turned our music into my own personal ear worm, I think I'm actually getting this artistry thing he keeps yammering on about.
  2. (originally US) Short for corn earworm (“larva of the moths Helicoverpa zea (syn. Heliothis zea) and Helicoverpa armigera, which are agricultural pests”).
    • 1924 January–March, Martin V. Calvin, “Agricultural Research”, in Annual Report of Georgia Department of Agriculture for 1923 (Quarterly Bulletin of the Georgia Department of Agriculture; serial no. 95), Atlanta, Ga.: Georgia Department of Agriculture, OCLC 11721985, page 44:
      I had planned in mind to tell you [...] how I protected, that is, guaranteed, Evergreen sweet corn against the bud worm and the ear worm; [...]
    • 1929 June, F[red] C[ory] Bishopp, “Control Measures”, in The Bollworm or Corn Ear Worm as a Cotton Pest (U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin; no. 1595), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, OCLC 949951742, page 7:
      The number of bollworms or ear worms increases greatly as the season advances. This indicates a need for hastening the maturity of all crops affected.
    • 1952, C. M. Packard; John H. Martin, “Resistant Crops, the Ideal Way”, in Alfred Stefferud, editor, The Yearbook of Agriculture 1952: Insects, Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture; United States Government Printing Office, OCLC 889206049, page 434, column 1:
      Encouraging progress is being made, however, in the search for and utilization of earworm-resistant strains of both field and sweet corn. We mentioned the protection of ears from earworms, weevils, and grain moths by tight husks that extend beyond the tip of the ear.
    • 1967 February, Victor L. Guzman [et al.], “Insects and Their Control”, in Sweet Corn Production on the Organic and Sandy Soils of Florida (Bulletin (Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Florida); no. 714), Gainesville, Fla.: Agricultural Experiment Stations, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, OCLC 1310906, pages 27–28:
      The fall armyworm and the corn earworm attack sweet corn as earworms. [...] Although they may sometimes eat through the husk to attack the side of the ear, most earworms feed on the silks and enter through the silk channel to attack the tip of the ear. The earworm population may be almost completely composed of corn earworms or of fall armyworms, or of a mixture of the two species.
    • 1980 October, C. S. Creighton; J. E. Halfhill, “Caterpillars and How They Damage Plants”, in Control of Caterpillars on Cabbage and Other Cole Crops (United States Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin; no. 2271), Washington, D.C.: Science and Education Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, OCLC 12220268, page 10, column 2:
      A single earworm may seriously damage or destroy the bud of a cole crop plant, causing the plant to be disfigured or to produce several secondary buds. Earworms may disfigure the heads of cabbage plants by their feeding and tunneling [...].
    • 1984, J. M. Fajemisin; S. K. Kim; Y. Efron; M. S. Alam, “Breeding for Durable Disease Resistance in Tropical Maize with Special Reference to Maize Streak Virus”, in Breeding for Durable Disease and Pest Resistance [] (FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper; 55), Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, published 1985, →ISBN, page 49:
      [I]nsects exert undesirable influence on tropical maize production, with stem borers, ear worms and weevils being the most ubiquitous groups.
  3. (archaic) An earwig (insect of the order Dermaptera).
    • 1865, John Ogilvie, “Earwig”, in The Student’s English Dictionary, Etymological, Pronouncing, & Explanatory: [], London; Edinburgh: Blackie and Son, [], OCLC 1040896901, page 270, column 2:
      Earwig, [...] The ear-worm or grub, a well-known insect, with large transparent wings, which eats fruit and flower-leaves, and has been erroneously supposed to creep into the human brain through the ear; [...]
    • 1870, Alfred Vogel, H. Raphael, transl., A Practical Treatise of the Diseases of Children. [], New York, N.Y.: D[aniel] Appleton and Company, [], OCLC 1133653796, page 435:
      Foreign Bodies in the Ear. [...] The ear-worm (forficula auricula), so much dreaded by people, occasions no special danger, but behaves in the ear in as harmless a manner as all other living animalcula of that calibre.

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  1. ^ Compare “earworm, n.1”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2015; “earworm, n.2”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2015; “earworm, n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–present.

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