They Are Called Doodlebugs, Dang It

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Years ago, I took one of those dialect tests that was supposed to be able to tell what part of America I was from via which words I chose for a soft drink (“Coke”), the second-person pronoun (“y’all”), that road that runs alongside a freeway (“feeder road”), and a sandwich on a sliced, elongated bun (“po’boy”).

Then the quiz asked me what term I used for the gray, many-legged, armadillo-like terrestrial crustacean that curled itself into a ball when threatened, those poor adornments on many a youngster’s mud pie. Oh, a doodlebug, I answered.

What happened next had never occurred to me before on one of those quizzes, nor has it ever been duplicated since.

The quiz baldly stated that I was, quite simply, wrong. Doodlebugs, the quiz told me, were the larvae of ant-lions. The “correct” answers this alleged dialect quiz were looking for included “wood-lice,” “pillbugs,” “sowbugs,” and “roly-polies.”

Excuse me, but What The Actual F? I thought these quizzes were supposed to objectively gauge regional colloquialisms, not give pedantic lessons in entomology. Since when are they supposed to have correct answers?

And in the Houston of the seventies, the correct name for those little critters was doodlebugs. Ant-lions? We just called them ant-lions. Why was the Houston (and New Orleans and East Texas) answer singled out as incorrect, when it was equally true that not all sodas were Cokes, despite many people calling them that across the South? And was it not equally incorrect to call a baby ant-lion a doodlebug? It was a slap in the face to my region. The Gulf Coast is ignored and slighted enough without some two-bit Internet linguist critiquing the backyard wildlife nomenclature of my people.

And now vindication is ours, doodlebug fans. That annoying little quiz has long since vanished from the web, with several much more authoritative, and less bossy, dialect tests going up in its place, including this one by linguist Bert Vaux, perhaps the most detailed and authoritative (certainly the most popular) online American dialect quiz of all time. (And one with an uncanny ability to pinpoint the geographic origins of those who take it, thanks in part to an algorithm-based heat-map generated by collaborator Josh Katz.)

And as luck would have it, Vaux, a former Harvard professor who now teaches at King’s College at the University of Cambridge, spent a chunk of his youth in Houston, where he learned how to call things by their proper names, as he demonstrated to Here and Now’s Robin Young:

YOUNG: Well, it is just fantastic. When you take your own quiz, by the way, does it get you right?

VAUX: It does, though I’m a bit tough because I’m half from Houston and half from Chicago. And Josh’s algorithm identifies me as being from the Chicago area. There are a few things that give me away as having lived in Houston, such as calling the little bug that rolls into a ball, the roly-poly pillbug one, a doodlebug.

So take that, silly old Internet quiz. And Bob Wills, I love you, man, but your title is all wrong here:

(Photograph via Wikipedia, Franco Folini)

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