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Etymological insecticide

This story continues the attempts of the previous week to catch a flea. Anyone who will take the trouble to look at the etymology of the names of the flea, louse, bedbug, and their blood-sucking allies in a dozen languages will discover that almost nothing is known for certain about it. This fact either means that we are dealing with very old words whose beginnings can no longer be discovered or that the names have been subject to taboo (consequently, the initial form is beyond recognition), or, quite likely, both factors were in play. Common sense suggests that those names should refer to stinging, biting, color, size, and shape, or the parasites’ deleterious effect, but of course onomatopoeia should not be discounted either: though fleas and lice are silent, mosquitoes are not. It always amuses me that the standard etymology of the Russian word komar “mosquito” (stress on the second syllable) refers kom to sound imitation. Do those pestiferous insects buzz kommm? Hmm, perhaps. The German for “bumblebee” is Hummel, but bumblebees really “hum.”

To make matters worse, if the name whose origin we are exploring means “pest” or “biter,” or “buzzer,” it will fit more than one insect. What word can be simpler than tick? Doesn’t it tickle before it digs itself in? Tickle is rather obviously sound-symbolic. One of its variants is kittle (compare German kitzeln), and its shorter relative is tick (verb); tick-tack-toe also comes to mind. It does not seem that any dictionary is ready to connect tick and tickle. Armenian tiz means “beetle.” A cognate, a chance parallel? Irish dega “stag beetle” has been compared with tick, but how far does this comparison lead? Wherever we may look, we end up with similar lists. That is why when I see the reconstructed root of the word flea represented as bhsul– or bhlus-, I question their reality (was there such a “root”?). Nor does the occasionally invoked closeness between flea and fleece fill me with enthusiasm.

Johann N. Hummel, 1778-1837, a composer and great pianist. Portrait of Hummel, circa 1814, via Wikimedia Commons.

Insects are hard to exterminate, and their names are as hard to etymologize. More than once have I referred to two laws of etymology that I have discovered for myself and that seem to work in all cases. First: every time a word of dubious or unknown origin is expected to shed light on the origin of another obscure word, the result turns out to be wrong. Second: the more complicated an etymology is, the higher the chance that it is wrong, because correct etymologies are usually simple and almost immediately convincing. It is the second law that concerns us here.

The Russian for “louse” is vosh’. Its Slavic cognates sound very much alike. Lithuanian víevesa ~ vievesà, obviously a reduplicated form, looks like a good congener. Finnish väive was probably borrowed from Baltic. The origin of those words, as long as they remain in their Slavic-Baltic home, need not bother us here. English has louse, from lūs, and this form is similar all over Germanic. The apparently related Welsh form sounds as llau, and this fact led to the conclusion that in lūs, –s is some sort of ending, with the root being -. Now, in Sanskrit, the louse was called yūkā, while the Slavic vosh’ begins with v, apparently, from w-. The same holds for Lithuanian. Therefore, a brave attempt has been made to combine w- with l- and produce a protoform that would begin with l’. I find such attempts clever but moderately persuasive. Even if there was an Indo-European protoform, numerous changes have garbled it beyond recognition. With taboo and expressive formations always in play, the sought-after protoform is sure to escape us.

My skepticism should not discourage serious students of language history. For instance, Engl. hornet begins with h. Assuming that it has a non-Germanic cognate, it should begin with k- (by the First Consonant Shift, to which I refer in almost every post). And indeed, the Latin for “hornet” is crabro. But in Slavic, the consonant corresponding to Germanic h and Latin k is, in a certain phonetic environment, s, which became sh, and lo and behold! the Russian for “hornet’ is shershen’, which means that the hornet has nothing to do with horns (indeed, why should it?), and only folk etymology makes us think about them. Gambols, like those which connected hornet, crabro, and shershen’, are perfectly legitimate, because they are regular, that is, the same correspondences occur in all words of the same structure. But etymological games with flea and louse are individual exercises, invented for one occasion only, and therefore they do not inspire much confidence.

There are greater miracles than the travels of the Indo-European consonant k. Old Engl. loppe meant “spider” and (!) “silkworm.” Alongside of it, the word loppestre (with the variants lopystre and lopustre) existed. It meant “locust,” a borrowing of Latin locusta. But why lopystre ~ lopustre rather than locust? Not improbably, loppe also meant “flea” or some other jumping insect, and the locust gained its name under the influence of this loppe: just another jumper! If my guess has credence, lopustre is a folk etymological blend of loppe and locusta. (Blends are words like motel, Brexit, and the horrible incel.) But our voracious jumper did not stop there. Its elongated body aroused an association with a large marine crustacean, known to all of us as lobster. Quite an adventure! Many words for “beetle” and its kin seem to have denoted “sack, bunch, pin, etc.,” with reference to their shape; loppe looks like one of them.

Close relatives, right? Locust from christels via Pixabay; lobster from PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.

Another endearing character in our drama is the nit. The word goes back to Old Engl. hnitu. Its Slavic cognates begin with gn– (Russian gnida, and so forth). Old Norse also had gnit, and so do its modern continuations in Swedish and Norwegian. Elsewhere, the name of the same creature begins with gl-, rather than gn-: such is Lithuanian glìnda. Naturally, all such forms have been traced to more or less appropriate verbs, meaning “to scrape,” “to destroy,” “to rot,” “to rub,” and so forth. But one wonders again: Were all such words derived from verbs? Were they not expressive formations, perhaps coined to resemble some verbs but not connected with them? Gn– and kn– are common beginnings of sound-imitating and sound-symbolic words: compare gnaw, gnash, knock, and their likes.

Indeed, have we forgotten gnat? All over Indo-European one runs into its kin, including of course nit, mentioned above. Consider Russian gnus “(a swarm of) very small insects” (believe me: no meshes in a mask are too small for that pest), Latvian knischi “flies swarming in the dust” (my spelling is probably obsolete), and others.

It is only fair to admit that the names of insects obviate the strict laws of etymology with great success. This conclusion should not be equated with the verdict “origin unknown”; rather it means that we are dealing with ludic forms, whose formation violates the rules applicable to the words chosen to designate less troublesome creatures than lice, fleas, flies, and gnats. Language is not algebra, and this circumstance constitutes one of its main charms.

PS. Last week, we observed Goethe’s and Mussorgsky’s celebration of the flea. The flea also graces Nikolai Leskóv’s tale about how a lefty shod this creature. The story was turned into a play by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of the famous dystopia We. Both are worth reading.

Nikolai Leskov’s tale on the left, and Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1884-1937, on the right. Title page to The Steel Flea published by Gentlemen Adventurers, Boston, 1916. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Zamyatin portrait by Boris Kustodiev, 1923. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

PPS. I would like to finish this short series by expressing my appreciation of the charming poem John Cowan posted in the comments to the previous post, and to Constantinas Ragazas for correcting my Greek

Featured image credit: Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian the nit-picker

    With regard to the old limerick quoted by john Cowan, it warrants some editing, IMO:
    A fly and a flea in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    “Let us flee!” said the fly,
    “Let us fly” said the flea,
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
    The chiastic rhyme in the middle couplet pairs the verbs to the opposite animals. The fly normally “flies”; the flea can fly, but only for limited distances. Working backwards, then, the insects should be named in reverse order (which is how I learned it):
    A flea and a fly in a flue (consonance; naming vowels in order)
    Were imprisoned, so what did they do?
    “Let us flee”, said the flea (homonym)
    “Let us fly”, said the fly (syntactical pun)
    So they fled through a flaw in the flue (consonance)

  2. John Cowan

    Vivian the copy editor:

    Quite right, I find: what you quote here is in fact the original Ogden Nash poem. But I learned the poem through the folk process, by which time the animals had been associated with the NON-homonymous verbs, and I continue to prefer this later (not to say mumpsimus) version.

    I don’t understand your reasoning for putting the flea before the fly; all I can say is that I find the reverse order more aesthetic. Perhaps it is because the diphthong in “fly” starts low and rises to a high front vowel; we then get that front vowel in “flea”, and only then a high back vowel in “flue”.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    There is no consensus on the etymology of “hep” (adj.) “in the know, etc.” other than that it originated in US slang. Hep seems to have come before hip. The earliest so-far reported uses of hep in this sense are from 1899. One of OED’s suggestions for a possible origin is Joseph W. Hepp, a prominent agent for circus companies in the 1870s and 1880s. Apparently, one is not born hep but becomes hep, initiated, is made hep, is put hep, gets hep. In southern US dialect hep (and he’p) is often help and hept or hepped for helped. So I thought maybe hep (and hept) came from dialect for help (and helped). Still, OED was justified in declaring the etymology “uncertain and disputed.” After looking for help in help, I was hepped to the fact that Gerald Cohen, in Comments on Etymology, “Hep/Hip Again,” May, 2018, pp. 43-45, had already proposed this origin.

  4. Jevgenijs Kaktins

    This is knislis and knišļi for those swarming flies in Latvian. Another folk etymology if I may – blusa is rather close to the word blakus (by, close), and actually the word for bed bug – blakts is even closer. The one for louse is uts or utis for lice which together with blakts blaktis belong to 6th declension , kind of feminine

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