Monday, March 15, 2010


For all its mayhem and terror, the unpromising twenty-first century has also given us one of the best, most satisfying neologisms in the English language.

The last couple of decades have seen a surfeit of words mothered by technological necessity. They’re often innovative, but they don’t wear all that well; either they’re cute in the same way that vomit is cute (‘tweeting’) or plain inelegant (‘Facebooking’ or ‘friending’). Either way they seem to be afflicted with a tiresome wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality.

This word so beautifully captures a universal human experience that there’s really nothing to do but sit back and admire it.

This word is ‘earworm’.

An earworm is a song, or a fragment of music, that gets stuck in your head and plays incessantly. It could be a whole song, or a verse. It could be a set of lyrics, or instrumental. It could be just one musical bar. It will attach itself to your auditory cortex, which is apparently active not just when you’re actually listening to a song but also when you imagine listening to that song; it will stay there; and it will, sooner rather than later, drive you around the bend.

The word ‘earworm’ (from the German ‘Ohrwurm’) has been around for a while, but I suspect that it hasn’t gotten the play, so to speak, that it deserves. Fewer people seem aware of its existence than should be, considering how wonderfully cathartic it is to be able to exactly describe a very specific form of psychic torture—particularly vicious because it’s both self-inflicted and completely out of your control.

Earworms begin by being just dandy. After all it’s the catchiness of the melody or the bar that insinuated it into your head in the first place. All is happiness. But pretty soon things begin to unravel. First it’s merely uncomfortable when the drone takes the shine off the happiness. Then, when you find yourself unable to think of anything else, it’s annoying. Things shade into frustration when you realise with a sinking feeling that you cannot get rid of it. Pretty soon you’re beating your cranium repeatedly against the wall trying to concuss the damn thing out of your system, until finally you end up in the emergency room shouting “Got this feeling! That tonight’s gonna be a good night! That tonight’s gonna be a good, good ni-i-ght!” over and over again, while the doctors back away slowly.

The genius of the word lies in the multiple connotations of the word ‘worm’. The experience is indeed quite a lot like having a maggot kind of worm crawling around making your head itch. It’s quite a lot like having a computer virus kind of worm reduce the hard drive of your auditory memory to jelly. It’s quite a lot like getting sucked through a cosmic kind of wormhole into a universe where you’ll be stuck for eternity without a sandwich in sight.

I haven’t been afflicted by the worst earworm you can get (anything by Celine Dionne or Whitney Houston) but I’ve had Joan Baez, which is pretty rough. Sadly, my chances of being plagued by these things is doubly high because I not only have a neurotic obsessive-compulsive nature, but am also female, both of which raise my predisposition. At the moment I have John Mayer’s Who Says I Can’t Get Stoned, but I’m still enjoying it because it’s newish.

They say that the only weapon against an earworm is an ‘eraser tune’ which might help displace it. But there’s little hope that the eraser tune won’t get bitten in the neck by the earworm and simply replace it. On the other hand, who says I can’t just get stoned?


dipali said...

Oh boy. Earworms are a menace. There was an ode to them, long before the term earworm was born. What I remember of it is:

Silly little tune,
Running through my brain
Wonder what it's called
'cos it's driving me insane
Heard it once before
underneath the summer moon
Wish i could remember
the name of that silly little tube.

val said...

I've just worked on the project where I had to build a "coming soon" page and there was a requirement for a "catchy, repetitive" tune. That's what we did: My Best Mortgage Rates
I think it does meet the definition of "Ear Worm" :-)