For eight years, Trump bugged (annoyed) Obama with questions about his birth certificate. Later, Trump claimed that Obama bugged (wiretapped) him.

Merriam-Webster offers this "legal" definition of "bug," but gives no etymology:

to plant a concealed microphone in — compare eavesdrop, wiretap

It's been used this way as both a verb and a noun:

Trump wiretapping claim: Did Obama bug his successor?

The reason the Administration insisted on "secure and controlled conditions" for reconstruction was because the bugs were planted into the walls of the embassy by Soviet Government construction workers.

A search on etymonline for "bug" says the use in the sense of "wiretapping" dates to 1919, but I can't find a reference to exactly how or why the meaning originated.

Given how frequently the topic of "wiretapping" has been in the news in the U.S., how did wiretapping come to be called "bugging?"

  • 1
    Interesting answer by Sven Yarg, EL&U's number one etymologist guy: english.stackexchange.com/a/239280/44619
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:23
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA The earliest I'm seeing in OED for this sense of bug is from 1936: "The dictaphones (later called ‘dicks’ or ‘bugs’ by the force) were ordered." from Fighting Underworld.
    – Laurel
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:23
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    @phoog I would have to think about that, but I think the nature of the signal would not allow for interception without degrading it. It is a DC signal in a closed loop and interupting it would probably block it. Phone signals are analog, and can be intercepted with a bridge or even a simple condensor. And the recording equipment did not come into existence until the late 1800s, AFAIK. Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:44
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    @Cascabel even your own link begins by noting the existence of anti-wiretapping statutes in the 1860s, so actually you paraphrased it inaccurately. Surely nobody would have bothered with such statutes unless people were actually intercepting telegraph communications. I guess you didn't read it very carefully. But the source also reveals its questionable quality by claiming that these statutes were enacted by state courts. That's not how things work in the US, except perhaps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where the legislature is called the "General Court."
    – phoog
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 4:29
  • 2
    Speaking of insects, I suspect there is some link between this bug and the idiom a fly on the wall. No evidence though; if anything, my searches seem to suggest that a fly on the wall came later. Oh well.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 10:46

2 Answers 2


Bug, meaning "to arm something with an alarm" is from 1919 and this sense is mentioned as the forerunner of the word bug, meaning "to attach or install a listening device". Thus, it is not exactly true that the origin of the word bug, bugging in the sense asked in the original post is from 1919.

It is mentioned in the book 20th century words (by John Ayto): enter image description here

Here is the excerpt from 1919, from the original source:enter image description here

The earliest origin is mentioned as 1935 in the books 20th century words (by John Ayto) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition but I couldn't find the actual reference.

In OED, the earliest reference is from 1936 for the noun and 1955 for the verb.

  • 1
    Huh, I had always assumed bug originated because the hidden microphones were about the size of a bug (I have a vague memory of some movie showing a spy microphone this size being clipped onto someone's shirt)
    – Andy
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 20:14

A bug is a small insect (specifically a certain order of small insects) a small hidden microphone is the size of a small insect - at least in the movie going public imagination

  • 10
    Yes, but a lot of things are the size of a small insect and we don't call them all bugs. Otherwise I ate some bugs earlier today. Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:05
  • yes - probably also the context of being hidden and unwanted
    – mgb
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:18
  • 9
    Guesses are no good here. We need references.
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 3:22
  • @RaceYouAnytime also bacteria and virii are much smaller than insects but when they cause upset digestion (or worse), we do call them bugs!
    – nigel222
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:15
  • @RaceYouAnytime Well ... it's possible that you did eat some bugs earlier today and didn't notice. Commented May 2, 2017 at 13:28

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