Which is correct, humblebee or bumblebee?: Information Roundup
Bumblebee and humblebee are both applied to a family of large, hairy, social, wild bees and they mean the same thing. They were suggested by the buzzing, humming, droning sound made by the rapid wing motions of these insects. Neither is a mere variant of the other [page 32] but each had a separate origin. The first element in the one is akin to boom and that in the other to hum. Sounds made by bees, like those uttered by ventriloquists, contain no true consonants and are really a series of vowels. For that reason it is hard to trace the history of words of onomatopoeic or echoic origin, that is, words originally suggested by natural sounds. In such cases the consonant sounds are supplied by the human imagination. The bumblebee or bumblebee in some sections of England is called dumbledor, the last element of which is from Anglo-Saxon dora, related to drone and signifying the same. Dora survives in dorbeetle, dor bug and several other words. According to the Oxford dictionary, humblebee occurred in English as early as 1450 and bumblebee as early as 1580. Both are probably much older. Shakespeare uses humblebee several times but bumblebee not at all. The name of the genus to which these bees belong is Bombus, Latin for "buzzing" or "humming." Humblebee is akin to Dutch hommel bee and German Hummel bee. In Middle English humblen signified "to hum" or "to make a humming noise." M. Schele de Vere, in Americanisms; the English of the New World (1872), wrote: "In Scotland the sound of the bee is called bumming, and hence the insect was first called bumb-bee, and then bumble-bee, the second b having been produced by education." Humblebee has long been more common in British than in American usage. Even in England there is a growing tendency to use bumblebee to the exclusion of humblebee, although the latter is far from obsolete. In Modern English Usage H. W. Fowler says bumblebee is preferable "because its imitative origin is more apparent."