Nomen Est Omen – A Story Of Names


anopheles mosquitoEver wondered where certain words came from? I would be willing to take a bet that most of us have checked for the meaning of their names. At least I have: Benjamin could either mean “Son of the right side” or “Son of the South”. Interesting, but most probably only for people with the same name)

However that is not the point here: If there is a meaning behind most names, then there should also be a meaning behind pest names. The scientists who try to find out the origins and history of words are called etymologists and the science is called etymology.

Back to the topic. Let’s start with the basics:

bed bugPest: The word pest originates from the Latin word ‘pestis’ which translates into deadly disease, the “pest” was the old name for the plague. As rats and other so-called pests transmit these diseases, over time they became known as pests and the original meaning disappeared (Not in German though: “The Pest” still means “Plague” and “pests” are called something like “damage-lings” (Schaedlinge) instead).

Now let us have a closer look at more interesting ones:

german cockroachCockroach: The origins are not entirely clear but it seems that the original Spanish word Cucaracha was taken over by Europeans as a mixture of “Cock”, as in Rooster and Roach, which is a small fish. So, cockroaches are chicken-fish, as per the original word

Bed Bugs: Bug originates from the Welsh word bwg (pronounced boog) and was the name for hobgoblins or evil spirits. Bed bugs are most likely to be the first to be called bugs, (considering the trouble they create at night).

brown ratRats/Rodents: The origin of the word lies in the Latin “rodere” which means to gnaw or to scratch. I think this is a pretty good description about what rodents do: Gnawing on stuff. The reason behind this behaviour is that their teeth continue to grow and in order to survive they have to keep them short. Good observation resulted in this name. Our Indian Giant Bandicoot Rat, got its name from the Telugu (which is the language of Andhra Pradesh, a state in India) word “Pandikokku”, which means pig rat. Considering the size and the sounds these rodents make, this is a well suiting name.

garden ant - lassius nigerAnts: Well, the origin of the word ant is a bit trickier to explain, it originates from “ante” of Middle English, “amette” of Old English and āmeiza from Old High German. However all words are derived from the West Germanic amaitjo, which can be translated in “the Biter off”. On species level you will get a lot of really crazy names, such as Emerett’s Wretched Ant, Jerdon’s jumping ant and Bulldog ants. However I will have to tell about these in a separate article.

House flyFlies: originate from the Old English word “fleogan” which means “to soar through the air”. Originally used for all flying insects, hence:

1. Butter-fly: These insects got the name most probably, because either they were interested in milk. Superstition even saw butterflies as the embodiment of witches, who wanted to steal the cream. (And not as a distortion of flutterby, as people commonly believe)

2. Blow Fly: These guys got their name from the Old English Word for meat with eggs on it; these were supposed to be fly-blown.

Mosquito: Spanish word which can be translated into “Little fly” and can be traced back to Latin “Musca”, which again means “Fly”. Interestingly there seems to be a connection to the word musket, which surely stings if you are hit :-)

CricketCricket: Originates from the Old French word “criquer”, which can be translated into “to creak, to make a cracking sound”. And again, quite a good and true name for these insects.

After all these somewhat exhausting examples, I would like to tell you the story of how the Ladybug got its name (No clue if it is true though, but it’s a nice story):

Ladybird, ladybug - its one and the sameOnce upon a time in Europe, there was a small village, which was neck-deep in trouble, because aphids were destroying all their vegetables. Without any real option (I suppose pest control was not as sophisticated as it is nowadays), the farmers started praying desperately to Virgin Mary, for a miracle. And a miracle they got in the form of small red and black dotted beetles that were devouring all the aphids. The grateful farmers called them “our Lady’s bugs”, over the years the name shortened to lady bugs.

This blog entry got a bit longer than initially planned; hope it will help you to impress friends and family, and maybe even your next date (in order to show the fun side of pest control!) with the new etymologic knowledge you gathered.

PS: My apologies to any etymologists for possible misspellings, please correct me if I made mistakes.

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