COVID-1984: The theory of creepy

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In these days of virtual networked life, with plans to automate contact tracing by coordinating registries of everyone's locations and actions over time, a recently-introduced technical term has gained greater relevance. The source is Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky, "A Theory of Creepy: Technology, Privacy, and Shifting Social Norms", Yale Journal of Law and Technology 2014:

The rapid evolution of digital technologies has hurled dense social and ethical dilemmas that we have hardly begun to map or understand to the forefront of public and legal discourse. In the near past, community norms
helped guide a clear sense of ethical boundaries with respect to privacy. We all knew, for example, that one should not peek into the window of a house even if it were left open, nor hire a private detective to investigate a casual date or the social life of a prospective employee.

Yet with technological innovation rapidly driving new models for business and inviting new types of socialization, we often have nothing more than a fleeting intuition as to what is right or wrong. Our intuition may suggest that it is responsible to investigate the driving record of the nanny who drives our child to school, since such tools are now readily available. But is it also acceptable to seek out the records of other parents in our child’s car pool, or of a date who picks us up by car?

Alas, intuitions and perceptions of how our social values should align with our technological capabilities are highly subjective. And, as new technologies strain our social norms, a shared understanding of that alignment is even more difficult to capture. The word “creepy” has become something of a term of art in privacy policy to denote situations where the two do not line up.

Reading that essay led me to wonder about the history of the word creepy, so I checked the OED. I expected to learn that the figurative meaning came from the negative associations of creepy/crawly bugs and worms and such. And probably that's been involved along the way, and still is — it's certainly what the word makes me think of. But the OED's entry, not updated since 1893, suggests a different semantic evolution:

1. Characterized by creeping or moving slowly.

1794 R. J. Sulivan View of Nature II. 95 It is a creepy fluid.
1860 All Year Round 31 Mar. 538 She is rarely still, though I am bound to say she is creepy gentleness itself.
1889 J. Abercromby Trip E. Caucasus 180 An artistically embroidered coverlet countless swarms of creepy insects.

2.a. Having a creeping of the flesh, or chill shuddering feeling, caused by horror or repugnance.

1831 Cat's Tail 30 I feel somehow quite creepy at the thought of what's coming.
1863 Ld. Lytton Ring of Amasis II. 38 There comes over him, all at once, a sort of cold, creepy shudder.
1882 Macmillan's Mag. 444 To confess that he has felt ‘creepy’ on account of certain inexplicable sounds.

2.b. transferred. Tending to produce such sensations.

1883 ‘G. Lloyd’ Ebb & Flow II. xxxiii. 236 The whole place seemed lonely, and, as Mildred whispered to Pauline, ‘creepy’.
1892 Spectator 2 Apr. 470/1 A really effective romance of the creepy order.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 11:31 am

    Feeling that the OED did not really gloss "creeping of the flesh" to my satisfaction, I carried out a full-text search for the phrase and was intrigued to see that it occurs in the definition of "horripilation" [1] (sb.). As I was not familiar with "horripilation", but expecting that it was something linking horror with some behaviour of the skin, I read on, only to learn that its etymology has nothing to do with "horror" whatsoever, but rather derives from the late Latin horripilātio (Vulgate), noun of action < horripilāre, < stem of horrēre to bristle (see horre v.) + pilus hair. And "horror" does not appear to derive from any of these …
    [1] Erection of the hairs on the skin by contraction of the cutaneous muscles (caused by cold, fear or other emotion, or nervous affection), producing the condition known as ‘goose-flesh’; ‘creeping of the flesh’.

  2. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    See also “(give someone) the creeps,” which I was mildly surprised to learn goes back at least as far as Dickens.

    1849 C. Dickens David Copperfield (1850) iii. 29 She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’.

  3. Bloix said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

    Flesh can not only creep – it can crawl. Which implies to this reader that gooseflesh has been associated with the sensation of insects moving over the skin for a very long time, such that an effort to separate the meaning of creepy "insect-like" and creepy "like gooseflesh" is probably an impossible task.

  4. Scott M said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 5:15 pm

    @ Philip Taylor: "Horror" does indeed derive from horrere; its literal meaning in Latin is "bristling," but already in classical Latin the metaphorical meanings predominate (according to Lewis and Short:

  5. Anne Cutler said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 9:26 pm

    > the creepiness of bugs?
    "…it's certainly what the word makes me think of" (MYL)
    Really? In my world, bugs scuttle, run, and dash, and spring out; they swarm, they infest, they overrun. But they never creep. Would that they would, they'd be easier to expunge/efface/wipe out….

  6. Bloix said,

    April 27, 2020 @ 11:14 pm

    24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

    25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

    Genesis Ch. 1 (KJV)

  7. James Wimberley said,

    April 28, 2020 @ 7:13 am

    Bloix: the KJV revisers unusually depart here from Tyndale:

    24 And God sayd: leth the erth bring forth lyvynge creatures in thir kyndes: catell and wormes and beastes of the erth in their kyndes and so it came to passe.
    25 And god made the beastes of the erth in their kyndes and catell in their kyndes ad all maner wormes of the erth in their kyndes: and God sawe that it was good.

    Young's Literal has "creeping thing", so it's presumably in the Hebrew. Tyndale may have been winging it, rather than crawling it.

  8. Martha said,

    April 28, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    I agree with Anne that bugs don't creep. The verb "creep" connotes some amount of sneakiness in my mind, or even sleaziness, with "on" ("I left because that guy was creeping on me.")

    And I'd also say that bugs aren't "creepy" (the exception being the term "creepy-crawly"), and that only people (creeps), situations, and things in the uncanny valley can be "creepy."

    However, I consulted my husband, who is afraid of bugs, and he says bugs are creepy. He wasn't sure whether it's the same kind of creepy as people.

    I'm reminded of this article entitled The Worst Thing a Woman Can Call a Man ( and, assuming that Anne is a woman, as I am, I wonder if there's some sort of gender component to how the word is used.

  9. Anne Cutler said,

    April 28, 2020 @ 9:56 pm

    @Martha – I checked with my husband, and he claims to have always thought "creepy" to refer to stalkers, spies and others who lurk and don't want to be open in their dealings. I always associated it with gooseflesh, as the dictionary would want, but then I'm a bit of a literalist. Neither of us felt it to be an attribute of bugs. Looks like it might just be one's first experience, as so often.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 1:12 am

    I use creepy to refer to gooseflesh and also to the stalking and spying behaviors. “Creeper” can be used to refer to someone (usually male; I can’t remember if I have used it to refer to a specific female whose behavior I consider creepy), but also to an infant in that in-motion stage before crawling or walking.

    “Creeping along” implies slowness, and seems often to lack any nasty or malicious overtone.

    My impression is that creepy behavior has a component of maliciousness but is not so evil that it is horrifying. Sometimes creepy behavior could be described as antisocial, but antisocial is often a more neutral term that does not include suggestions of malice.

    Snakes are creepy, but they don’t creep; they slither.

    I am surprised by the argument that insects don’t creep — caterpillars are often described as “creeping.” Caterpillars are definitely bugs. Having a caterpillar crawl on my skin is creepy, and it raises gooseflesh (tent caterpillars or similar caterpillars have dropped on me and I was not pleased).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 5:50 am

    I think that Barbara Long's "creeping along" epitomises (for me, at least) the essence of "creeping". It is a slow progression, which can (but is not necessarily) accompanied by stealth. Thus a parent can creep up behind a child and shout "Boo !", which entails both slowness and stealth (and of course a snake or other predator can do the same : "creep up" => "stealth") but when a caterpillar (are they really termed "bugs" in American ?) creeps along a frond, or a sloth along a branch, there is no stealth but merely slowness ("creep" => "slowness"). "He is a creep" is, I think, another thing entirely, only tangentially related to its non-metaphorical meaning. And of course "a creepy film" is yet a third usage with implicit meaning.

  12. mikegrubb said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 9:36 am

    I know this isn't an academic source, but in the 1st Edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook (Gygax, 1978, p. 63), there is a spell called "Creeping Doom" that creates "a mass of … venomous biting and stinging arachnids, insects, and myriapods [that] will creep forth … towards any prey …" This indicates that, in the minds of Gygax and his collaborators at least, insects and similar bugs "creep."

    (Working remotely, in my case, means having some less-than-professional texts handy.)

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 6:53 pm

    This children’s book about bugs, published with the imprimatur of National Geographic, includes illustrations of caterpillars and discussions of metamorphosis. The beginning of chapter one (which was viewable through the “look inside” link) describes bugs as “creepy-crawly” and lists a range of examples. The author goes on to explain what insects are, and clarifies that not all bugs are insects.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 4:48 am

    I'm deeply saddened by the lack of an apostrophe after "kids" in the title, Barbara !

    But I am also drawn by the assertion "not all bugs are insects", which is clearly true because bugs might (for example) include arachnids. What I would like to know is, though, ' are all insects "bugs" ', in North American usage ?

  15. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 8:19 pm

    From my perspective, it is likely that all insects and arachnids are “bugs,” with some caveats. Eggs of insects are eggs, not bugs. Caterpillars are bugs, but if there are larvae that look and act like worms (similarly to earthworms or nematodes) and lack legs, then I would call the larvae worms.

    There is also the matter of size. As an adult, I would probably use “caterpillar” to refer to larger (and often handsomer) insects such as the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. But there are plenty of smaller, less attractive caterpillars that I might dismiss as “bugs.”

    Centipedes and millipedes are bugs, as far as I am concerned, but they aren’t insects.

    This information related to stream ecology uses “bugs” in the general sense and also technically in relation to Hemiptera:

    To compare your usage to other British usage, you might take a look at the books about bugs published by Usborne. (Usborne is very popular in the U.S., too, with several young families I know. I bought Usborne titles for my children years ago at bookstores, but Usborne became more ubiquitous here through its multilevel marketing operations.) Some of their books may be showcased in YouTube videos that are either sales pitches or instances of adults reading children’s books aloud and showing the pages so the children can follow along. Books on bugs by other publishers are also available there, too.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 10:05 am

    Well, language changes all the time, and there is no doubt that a short word such as "bug" is likely to appeal to a child, but thinking back to my own childhood the only time I heard the word "bug" used was in a number of set phrases such as "bed bug", "horny bug", mealy bug" and so on. I don't think that at that time it was generally used in the UK with the almost unrestricted meaning of Usborne's 'bugs'.

  17. Martha said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 5:01 pm

    Anne Cutler – Well that idea was fun while it lasted!

    "Bugs" to me (American) are only spiders and adult insects. I guess I might say "look at all those bugs!" if there were adult and larval insects, but never if it were only larvae.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    May 3, 2020 @ 4:28 am

    Just thought to look at the history of the very popular children's "I Spy" series of books, launched in the late 1940s by Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell (writing as "Big Chief I-Spy") and re-launched at regular intervals ever since. No mention anywhere of the word "bug" (singular or plural) and the closest one gets (apart from "insects") is "creepy crawlies", which brings us back (very helpfully) to the title of the thread. Indeed, "creepy crawlies" feels very natural to me, as a native speaker of <Br.E>, whilst "bugs" feels completely foreign.

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