Cockroach – an unlikely pairing

Cockroaches, like aphids, tend to get a bad press, the former as objects of disgust, the latter as pests. This is of course because our perception of cockroaches is heavily influenced by the scuttling, slithering and susurrus images that haunt our memories from watching too many reality TV shows and horror films*.

Cockroaches are members of the superorder, Dictyoptera and are placed in the order Blattodea, (derived from the Latin, blatta, an insect that shuns light) which, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, along with the termites (inward et al., 2007).  When I was a student termites had their own Order, Isoptera; molecular biology and DNA studies have a lot to answer for 🙂  There are currently, about 4,600 described species, of which thirty are associated with humans and a mere four which are considered to be pests (Bell et al., 2007); see what I mean about a bad press.  They have a global distribution but are mainly associated with the tropics and sub-tropics.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and whom am I to doubt them?), the name “cockroach” comes from the Spanish word cucaracha, transformed by 1620s English folk etymology (where an unfamiliar word is changed into something more familiar) into “cock” (male bird) and “roach” (a freshwater fish).  I find this a little odd.  Given that the Romans were trading globally before they colonised England, it seems unbelievable that the Oriental and German cockroaches would not have made it to the British Isles and become a familiar pest, before the early seventeenth century.  That said, Robinson (1870) suggests that according to Gilbert White the Oriental cockroach Periplaneta orientalis, sometimes called the black beetle (e.g. Blatchley, 1892), was not introduced into England until 1790.  A reference in Packham (2015) however puts its introduction as 1644, which fits better with the OED’s date of derivation of the word.  I would, despite this, still suggest that the Romans would have been the more likely ones to have brought it to our shores.  I think it quite likely that anything that scuttled along the ground and was dark in colour would have been referred to as a black beetle, so my view is that our pestiferous cockroaches have been around much longer.  Any sources to prove/disprove this will be welcome.

Our native cockroaches, as opposed to those that have become naturalised, are shy, retiring, quite rare and located mainly in the south of England, where they dwell peacefully among the trees and heather, a situation that has remained largely unchanged for almost 200 years (Stephens, 1835).  Their names, except for Ectobius pallidus, seem to indicate an origin from farther afield, or perhaps just reflect the origin of the entomologist who first described them  🙂

Ectobius panzeri, The Lesser cockroach (distribution from the NBN Atlas)

Ectobius lapponicus, The Dusky cockroach (Distribution from the NBN Atlas). It is also known as the Forest cockroach in Hungarian   http://regithink.transindex.ro/?p=8782.  According the NBN Atlas it has been recorded as eating aphids.

Ectobius lapponicus showing the wings unfolded.

Ectobius pallidus, the Tawny cockroach (also known as Mediterranean Spotted Cockroach) (Distribution from the NBN Atlas)

 

Cockroaches, unlike ladybirds and aphids, don’t seem to have amassed a huge number of weird and wonderful names in other languages.  If anyone has some good examples to add, please let me know.

Albanian kakabu

Basque labezomorro (labe = oven, zomorro = bug)

Bulgarian хлебарка khlebarka

Finnish torakka

French  cafard (in English melancholia)

German kakerlake

Hungarian csótány

Italian scarafaggio (sounds like a character from an Opera)

Latin blatta

Latvian prusaku

Polish karaluch

Spanish cucaracha

Swedish kackerlacka

Yiddish tarakan

In terms of aesthetically pleasing versions I found Armenian ծխամորճ and Thai แมลงสาบ the most satisfying, and Japanese definitely the most abrupt  ゴキブリ

And to end,  a fun fact that might make some of you disposed to look more kindly upon the cockroach “The Cockroach is the natural enemy of the bed-bug, and destroys large numbers” (Packard, 1876).

 

References

Bell, W.J., Roth, L.M. &  Nalepa,  A.A. (2007) Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior and Natural History.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Blatchley, W.S. (1892) The Blattidae of Indiana.  Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 1892, 153-165.

Brown, V.K. (1980)  Notes and a key to the Oothecae of the British Ectobius (Dictyoptera: Blattidae).  Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 116, 151-154.

Inward, D., Beccaloni, G. & Eggleton, P. (2007) Death of an order: a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biology Letters, 3, 331-335.

Packham, C. (2015) Chris Packham’s Wild Side of Town. Bloomsbury Press, London.

Packard, A.P. (1876) Guide to the Study of Insects and a Treatise on those Beneficial and Injurious to Crops. Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Robinson, C.J. (1870) The cockroach.  Nature, 2, 435.

Stephens, J.S. (1835) Illustrations of British Entomology; or a Synopsis of Indigenous Insects. Volume VI. Mandibulata.  Baldwin & Cradock, London.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes

8 responses to “Cockroach – an unlikely pairing

  1. Have just started working with Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches as part of elementary school science program. Part of my job is convincing students to take a closer look. Some kids eventually agree with me that the roaches are cute!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The German word Kakerlak(e) is indeed used for several roach species that people might find in their homes, especially Blatta orientalis. Apparently some specific species have other common names: Wikipedia tells me that the “German” cockroach, Blattella germanica, is also known as a Schwabenkäfer (Swabian beetle), Preuße (Prussian), Russe (Russian) or Franzose (Frenchman) – apparently the Germans were quite fond of naming it after ethnic groups that they didn’t like.

    A more general word for roach, which I hear quite commonly in scientific circles, is Schabe. Wikipedia tells me that this word meant scrape/chafe/etc. and was originally used for a variety of pests including clothing moths, before later being applied to the blattodeans (pest and non-pest species alike).

    A side effect of learning German is that I automatically (and falsely) associate the word Blattodea with the German word “Blatt”, which means leaf. Even though I know this isn’t the origin of the word, it fits quite well given the leaf-like appearance of many roach species.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marlies

    The Dutch word is: kakkerlak.
    In German there are two words: kakerlak and schabe. The latter is more common. (I see that this is also described in a post above.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Kirby

    Thanks,entertaining and as ever educational!
    rgds

    Jim Kirby

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In our parts (North Carolina upper piedmont, North America), we have a charming little species, the western wood cockroach (Parcoblatta americana), that inhabits compost piles and woodpiles. They are definitively less scurrisome than the house roaches (which, if they get real big, we call waterbugs).

    Simplified Chinese: 蟑螂 zhanglang

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Water butterflies and hairy wings – Caddisfly names around the world | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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