Q From Scott Harman: I recently used the phrase cute as a bug’s ear in reference to my granddaughter. Some of my Chinese friends were confounded by the phrase; as one pointed out, there is nothing particularly cute about bugs or, presumably, their ears. I have heard this expression all my life (I live in the US Midwest) but I have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation of its origin. Can you help?
A Heavens to Betsy, another quaint American folk expression! It’s not at all surprising your Chinese friends found it odd.
Presumably working on the principle that the smaller the thing is the cuter it will be, the idiom suggests its subject is the epitome of cuteness. It means some person, especially a child, who is pretty or attractive in a dainty way. Other than that, no good explanation exists for the existence of the simile. I’m also reliably informed that, entomologically speaking, the idiom is nonsense, since bugs don’t have ears.
It belongs with a huge set of such expressions, mostly but not all American, which no doubt your Chinese friends would be equally puzzled by: cute as a bug in a rug, cute as a button, cute as a weasel, cute as a kitten, cute as a (pet) fox, cute as a bunny, cute as a speckled puppy, cute as a cupcake, cute as a kewpie doll, cute as a razor (nick), as well as the deeply deprecatory cute as a washtub (from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely) and cute as a shithouse rat (in James Joyce’s Ulysses).
Some of these are lesser-known variations of common similes (bugs in rugs are more often snug than cute, for example) and some of the older ones are using cute in its original sense of clever, shrewd or quick-witted (the word dates from the eighteenth century and is a shortened or aphetic form of acute). That sense has survived longer in British English than in American (“she might be too cute to fall into the trap”, Agatha Christie once wrote).
Here’s the earliest example I can find of your version:
“You are very cute, aren’t you?” the traveler said sarcastically. “Widder Wheeler says I’m cute as a Bug’s ear, and she knows.”
The News (Frederick, Maryland), 21 Apr. 1900.