Thursday, October 22, 2015

Language of Confusion: Fliers

So we’ve had eight-legged bugs and six-legged. Now it’s time for the ones that annoy you from the air.

Fly comes from the Old English fleoge, which could mean any winged insect before that one specific insect, and before that it was the Proto Germanic fleugon, flying insect. Of course it’s related to the verb fly, which was fleogan in Old English and fleugan in Proto Germanic—so only different by a couple of letters in both versions. To fly can be traced even further back to the Proto Indo European pleuk/pleu, flow or float. Um, I guess it’s good that we don’t call them plies then. And as for butterfly, it’s just a combination of the words butter and fly. There’s no real reason for it, although the theories are that it was either due to an old belief that butterflies ate butter that was left out or because many butterflies have pale yellow wings.

Bee comes from the Old English beo and Proto Germanic bion, both of which are just bee. Bumblebee is a little different. It showed up in the early sixteenth century, replacing the Middle English humbul-be, probably because of the influence of the word bombeln, which meant boom or buzz. That word is an echoic word (as in onomatopoeia) from the Proto Indo European echoic word kem, which means hum. So basically bumblebees are buzzing/humming bees.

And now, for the most evil of all insects, the wasp. Wasp comes from the Old English waeps/waesp, which comes from the Proto Germanic wabis, although the p was probably influenced by the classical Latin vespa. Either way, the word traces back to the Proto Indo European wopsa/wospa (I guess they really couldn’t decide), which means wasp. So wasps have had their name for a long time. I’m guessing because people really needed a way to label those little buggers.

Mosquito, a word I’m always impressed that I can spell on the first try, showed up in the late sixteenth century, coming from, well, Spanish. I know. It’s weird when it’s not Latin or German. Actually, before that English had another word for the bug: midge, which I think I’ve heard before but totally never connected to mosquito. Midge comes from the Old English mygg/mycg and Proto Germanic mugjon, while mosquito comes from the classical Latin musca, fly, and Proto Indo European mu-, also fly. No idea why we switched words like that. I guess we liked the Spanish way better.

Finally today, gnat, a word which for some reason has a G at the beginning. It comes from the Old English gnaet (gnat of course) and the Proto Germanic gnattaz. That word is thought to be related to ghen-, the word for gnaw, making the word “biting insect”. At least, maybe. Sometimes etymology is one big if.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. They are annoying, although I haven't had too many problems with bees. It's interesting how these words came about.

  2. Gnats are the most annoying since they are so small. We battle those suckers every year.

  3. They still use midge in Britain, although those (in my experience) were a bit smaller than your average American mosquito and tend to be more like biting gnats.

  4. Thanks for this interesting post and all the links. I'm checking out the links.

  5. I would say it's a close tie between mosquitos and blackflies for most irritating, with the former taking top marks because they last longer than blackflies.

  6. I think if the critter was only around in places that Latin didn't touch, we'd take the word for it from where the critter came from. I thought that's how we got skunk. And a couple other specifically American critters (from the Native Americans who knew what they were). Which is why mosquito coming from Spanish doesn't surprise me.

  7. I guess that's why we still call any annoying little flying thing a 'midge'...


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