Imagine for a moment a bug's ear... Cute picture? Hardly. You are more likely to be imagining something that might be at home in The Day of the Triffids. Do bugs (that's insects if you are reading in the UK) even have ears? Again, hardly. Many of them can detect sound, but they use a variety of strange means of doing it and none of them come equipped with anything resembling a human ear.
Similes of the type 'as white as snow', 'as busy as a bee' almost always refer to a property that is archetypally appropriate for the item in question. So why would anyone have imagined a bug's ear to be especially cute?
The phrase originated in the southern states of America in the latter part of the 19th century and is still more common there than elsewhere. I've never heard it in conversation here in Yorkshire for instance. No-one, even in Texas, where the phrase is often said to have originated, thought that bugs' ears were cute. What they did think, and they had a point here as insects can detect very miniscule and high-pitched sounds, is that they were 'acute'.
'Cute' was a synonym for 'acute' in the 1700s in England. Nathan Bailey defined it in The Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1731, as:
Cute: sharp, quick-witted, shrewd.
The term crossed the Atlantic and in 1848 the US romantic poet James Russell Lowell used the term with the 'sharp; shrewd' meaning in The Biglow Papers:
Aint it cute to see a Yankee Take sech everlastin' pains?
An early example of 'cute as a bug's ear' is found in a story in the South Carolina newspaper the Charleston Sunday News, June 1891:
Imogene McGinty is as cute as a bug's ear.
From around that time onwards, in the USA, the 'pretty; charming' meaning of cute began to supersede the previous 'acute' meaning, although the earlier meaning persisted for much longer in the UK, where it is still used.
Other 'as cute as' phrases came later and all of them rely on the present-day 'pretty; adorable' meaning. Examples are, 'as cute as a kitten/button/cupcake'. The expression 'as cute as a bug in a rug' is also quite commonplace. Bugs in rugs can't be said to be either especially sharp-witted or cuddly and that odd simile is just a merging of 'as cute as a bug's ear' and 'as snug as a bug in a rug'.
So, if you want 'cute', try a baby panda - bug's ears are 'acute'.
See other 'as X as Y' phrases.
1 （小さくて）かわいらしい, 可憐な. ⇒BEAUTIFUL[類語]
a cute baby ［dress］
2 ((米))機敏な, 抜け目ない, はしっこい.
3 ((米))気どった, きざな━━[副]((略式))かわいらしく, すてきに.
excessively cute behavior
Don't get cute with me.
From BooklistSuperseding The Life and Mind of John Dewey by George Dykhuizen (1974), due to the opening since then of Dewey's papers, Martin's biography will strike chords with admirers of the liberal reformer whose name is synonymous with progressive education. Tracing Dewey's 90-plus years, Martin aims for a sense of Dewey's life as a lived experiment, an exercise in pragmatism as it were, the label affixed to Dewey's philosophy. Although he was serious and conventional in his personal life, intellectually Dewey traveled far from his pietistic upbringing in the 1860s, traversing Hegelian idealism en route to his arrival to the view that the practical must trump the theoretical. Education is, of course, where he applied his ideas, most famously at his University of Chicago Laboratory School. Bowing to readability, Martin emphasizes Dewey's activities as a public expositor over scholarly mulling of his philosophical works, even as he records Dewey's life with a beloved first wife, succeeded by a second whom his children despised. This will be the new standard biography of the great reformer's life. Gilbert Taylor
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1 ((しばしば受身))…を破棄する, 無用にする；…に取って代わる, …の座を奪う, …を押しのける；〈人・物を〉（…と）取り替える((with, by ...)). ⇒REPLACE[類語]
Wood-burning stoves have been superseded by electric stoves. ［＝Electric stoves have superseded wood-burning stoves. ］
2 〈人の〉あとがまに座る, …に代わって就任する.