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.
Basque labezomorro (labe = oven, zomorro = bug)
Bulgarian хлебарка khlebarka
French cafard (in English melancholia)
Italian scarafaggio (sounds like a character from an Opera)
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).
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.