First: It is the official position of Volkswagen of America that no one should throw or receive a punch (or even a tap for that matter) simply upon seeing a Volkswagen Beetle. Volkswagen does not condone any form of violence, especially over an icon of the peace-and-love era like the Beetle.
That said, it is well known that generations of bored American children on the road have invented and handed down a game around the Beetle. But there’s also a lingering debate that has never been settled: What do you call it – slug bug, or punch buggy? It turns out the answer may say more about where you grew up than anything else.
No one may ever know how this bit of childhood came into existence. The Volkswagen Beetle first arrived in the United States in 1949, but it wasn’t until the mid-‘50s that the Beetle became more common, standing out on the new interstate system like a UFO among the more typically massive, squared-off sedans and wagons.
After extensive research, we were unable to find someone claiming to be the first to play the game. But we did unearth what may be the first published reference to it, from the May 6, 1964 edition of the Arizona Republic, where a columnist wrote a question-and-answer with his daughter, who tells him “I think the slug bugs are cute.”
There’s a bit of etymology to back up “slug bug” as the first name of the contest: Sports writers had used “slug bugs” as shorthand for boxing fans since the 1920s. It would take another 14 years for the first published reference to “punch buggy” to find its way into print — in 1978, in Florida.
Today, we have a few more tools to measure how often people use a word, and by those yardsticks, the two terms have roughly equal audiences on search engines and in social media. But our analysis did find something unusual in where those names pop up: “punch buggy” is the term most often used on the coasts, while “slug bug” is more predominant in the Midwest and southern states.
Whatever you call it, we’d say again that when you see a Beetle on the road today, hitting someone is never the right response. Try hugs, not slugs.