As snug as a bug in a rug
As we are moving inexorably towards winter, this phrase, which is in the common as x as y formulation, expresses our aspiration – we want to be warm, dry and comfortable.
There are three key words to explore in this phrase and we will start with the animate object, the bug. Of course, we associate the bug with an insect, any type of insect really, but it wasn’t always like that. In the 16th century a bug was a ghost or a ghoul as this translation of the 91st Psalm in the Coverdale Bible shows, “So yt thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night, ner for arowe that flyeth by daye.” However, by 1642 the noun bug was being used by Daniel Rogers in his Naaman the Syrian to describe an ant specifically and insects in general, “Gods rare workmanship in the Ant, the poorest bugge that creeps”. It is not known for certain why this change in usage took place but many insects are delicate, fragile things with transparent or translucent wings and so it may not be too fanciful to think that people were minded of ghostly things when they observed flying insects.
The other noun in the phrase is a rug – we all know what a rug is – but what is puzzling is that a rug sits flat on the floor and so whilst you could imagine an insect being reasonably snug under a carpet it probably would be more comfortable if it was in the middle of a rolled up rug. The image is less puzzling when we realise that a rug wasn’t always a floor covering. Its origin seems to date back to the Tudor period and a rug in those days was a thick woollen bed coverlet, somewhat akin to the modern-day blanket. It was only in the 19th century that rugs were placed on the floor, usually around the hearth.
Snug seems to owe its origin as an adjective to the nautical world and when used in association with ships, as it was by Captain Wyatt in 1595 thus, “A verie fine snugg long ship” it meant neat or trim or well-prepared. However, by 1630 – it is astonishing the pace of change in the English language in the century spanning the mid 1550s and the mid 1650s – John Lane was using it in the context with which we are familiar, that of cosiness and comfort, “Snugginge they in cabins lay each one.”
So those are the component parts but when were they all assembled to make the phrase we are familiar with? Our American friends will claim the honour for Benjamin Franklin who lamented the death of a pet squirrel called Skugg in 1772 thus, “Here Skugg/ lies snug/ as a bug/ in a rug” but he was pipped at the post by a description in the Stratford Jubilee of the actor David Garrick’s Shakesperean festival, including the lines, “ a who, in 1769, “If she [a rich widow] has the mopus’s [coins or money], I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug”.
Earlier still, though, we have “as snug as a bee in a box” (Edward Ward, The Wooden World Dissected, 1706) and as early as 1603 Thomas Wood’s play, A Woman Killed By Kindness, contains the line, “let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw”.
Why bugs replaced pigs is a matter for conjecture but it is likely that insects infested bedding not only because of the poorer standard of hygiene but because, especially when occupied, it was warm!