September 26, 2012

The backstory on “Snug as a bug in a rug.” (Spoiler Alert: Ben Franklin didn’t coin it.)


In 1771, Ben Franklin’s common-law wife, Deborah Read Franklin shipped a live gift to young Georgiana Shipley, the daughter of British friends in London.

It was an American gray squirrel that Deborah thought would make a nice pet for the girl.

Georgiana named it Mungo.

Mungo was also referred to as “Skugg.” That was a name commonly used for squirrels at the time, the way “Pooch” is used for dogs and “Puss” for cats.

About a year after Mungo became Georgiana’s pet, he escaped from his cage and was killed by a dog.

The Franklins heard about this misfortune and felt bad for little Georgiana. So, Ben wrote a letter to her to express his sympathy and try to cheer her up.

It is this letter, dated September 26, 1772, that led to the widespread belief that Franklin coined “snug as a bug in a rug,” which became an idiomatic way of saying someone or something is comfortable, warm and cozy.

The letter said, in part:

To Georgiana Shipley
Dear Miss,
London, Sept. 26. 1772

I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate End of poor Mungo: Few Squirrels were better accomplish’d; for he had had a good Education, had travell’d far, and seen much of the World. As he had the Honour of being for his Virtues your Favourite, he should not go like common Skuggs without an Elegy or an Epitaph. Let us give him one...

Here Skugg
Lies snug
As a Bug
In a Rug...

If you wish it, I shall procure another to succeed him. But perhaps you will now choose some other Amusement.

Remember me affectionately to all the good family, and believe me ever your affectionate
friend,

B. FRANKLIN

Franklin’s letter is certainly the most famous use of the saying “snug as a bug in a rug.”

However, as noted by the indispensable Phrase Finder website, the excellent book Who Said That First? and other authoritative sources, it’s not the origin.

The phrase had previously been used by Francis Gentleman in his satirical play The Stratford Jubilee, published in England in 1769.

Gentleman was an Irish-born playwright, actor and critic who spent most of his working years in London. He’s also known for writing the proto-science fiction tale A Trip to the Moon in 1764, under the pseudonym “Sir Humphrey Lunatic.”

In The Stratford Jubilee, a male character says he’s heard a certain widow “has the mopus’s” (a slang term for having money). If she does, he boasts, he plans to “have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”

This has been cited as the first appearance of “snug as a bug in a rug” in print. But it’s possible that its use in the play indicates it was already part of the common vernacular in England.

It seems probable that Franklin heard it during one of his visits there. Indeed, he was in London in 1769, so he may have seen or read Gentleman’s play.

The word snug was originally a nautical term, meaning to make a ship or things on a ship safe and secure. Thus, in the 1700s, “snug as a bug in a rug” was probably used with the concept of being secure or securing something in mind — which is slightly different than the more modern sense of being comfortable, warm and cozy.

At any rate, poor Mungo the squirrel wasn’t comfortable, warm and cozy when Ben Franklin wrote his letter. He was a cold, dead Skugg.

R.I.P., Mungo. This post’s for you.

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