Thursday, October 8, 2015

Language of Confusion: Crawlers, Part I

Bugs are scary. Well, gross. I don’t like them in my house. And they always seem to be in my house. And there are so many of them, that I needed two parts to do this. First up, six-legged creepy crawlies.

Ant first showed up in the early sixteenth century, coming from the Middle English ampte and Old English aemette, and before that, the West Germanic amaitjo. Apparently that’s a mix of two other word parts, ai (off) and mai (cut), so an ant was “cut off” or, to make more sense, “biter off”. That mai actually comes from the Proto Indo European word mai, to cut, the origin word for maim. Basically, ant = biter. Or maimer.

Flea comes from the Old English flea, which means flea (stop me if I’m going too fast for you). Before that, it was the Proto Germanic flauhaz, which likely derives from the Proto Indo European plou, also meaning flea. And have you ever heard of the color puce? Well, it turns out, that it also comes from plou, apparently because it was the color of fleas. Oh, and flea isn’t related to flee. Probably.

There’s two kinds of cricket, the bug and the English game. Are they related? Probably not. Yeah, I’ve been using “probably” a lot in this post. Sometimes words are really hard to figure out, especially nouns. Cricket the bug showed up first in the early fourteenth century, with the game showing up in the late sixteenth century. Both come from an OldFrench word, criquet, but one version of criquet means a cricket and the other means a goal post or stick. And apparently they aren’t related since the latter comes from a Middle Dutch/Flemish word, cricke, while the former is what’s known as “echoic”. Basically, they thought the noise crickets made sounded like “criquet” so they named the bug criquet.

Cockroach showed up in the early sixteenth century (shortening it to just roach didn’t happen until two centuries later). It actually comes from Spanish, believe it or not, where the word is cucaracha. Cuca is actually a kind of caterpillar, although for some reason I can’t imagine people think it means poop.

Termite showed up in 1849. Well, really it showed up in 1781, but people only used the plural form. Which I guess makes sense. It’s not like you ever see just one. Anyway, it comes from the Modern Latin termites, which is just termites, which is derived from the Late Latin termes and classical Latin tarmes, which means wood worm. Hm, nothing super amusing about that one.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Find the Data


  1. I always thought fleas were black.
    And how did it go from a caterpillar to a roach?
    Ever seen a Palmetto Bug? Yeah, sounds like a nice name, but it's just a giant, flying cockroach. And I do mean giant.

  2. Weird origins, particularly for roaches!

  3. I have an urge to re-watch Temple of Doom, now.

  4. Now I've got "La Cucaracha" stuck in my head.


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