Lightning bug or firefly?

A fascinating series of maps depicting regional variation in American dialects was just published by Joshua Katz, a graduate student in statistics at NC State University. The maps are based on the work of Bert Vaux, a linguistics professor at the University of Cambridge, who has collected responses from more than 10,000 Americans on questions like: “What do you call the insect that flies around in the summer and has a rear section that glows in the dark?”

Across the United States, 39.8 percent of respondents answered that they use the terms “lightning bug and firefly interchangeably;” 30.4 percent picked “firefly” and 29.1 percent picked “lightning bug.” The term “peenie wallie” is used by 0.02 percent of Americans.

As shown on Katz’s map, “lightning bug” is more common term from Appalachia to about one state’s width west of the Mississippi River. A plurality of respondents – 39.7 percent – in Harrisonburg, on the eastern fringe of this region, prefer “lightning bug.” 39.4 percent use lightning bug and firefly interchangeably, and just 20.9 percent use firefly exclusively.

“Firefly” is the in-vogue term in the West; “lightning bug” generally doesn’t stray far beyond the pre-Louisana Purchase bits of the U.S. Bigger version of the map here.

The dialect maps website is a great place to pass some time – e.g., ever wondered how the “loy-er” vs. “law-yer” thing breaks down in Harrisonburg? Wonder no more: 65 percent of us say “loy-er.” Also, if you’re someone like me, with parents from Ohio and Missouri, and who spent childhood overseas among non-American English speakers, and who has lived in Virginia longer than anywhere else, this is a fun way to figure out what part of the country your speaking habits best reflect.

Source: NC State University Department of Statistics

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5 Comments

  1. Deboeah Ciarla says:

    I’ve lived in California for 50 years, but have fond memories of my very young years (8 years and younger) in Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan. I remember fireflies, or when I’m sassy, lightening bugs! Though I do not miss the Midwest humidity, I do miss the fireflies.

  2. A. says:

    WHO THE HELL SAYS PEENIE WALLIE

  3. Charlotte says:

    I have noticed that the said bugs have different lighting patterns. Fireflies typically fly slow and light up once then go dark, then they fly for a ways and light up again then go out and so on, if that makes sense. Whereas lightning bugs fly faster and light up like a fast strobe light for about 2 seconds then go out, fly a little ways, and so on. They bugs themselves are the same bug and I think the light patterns depend on the sex of the bug.

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