Tag Archives: common names

Snouts, pugs, daggers and leaf eating wainscots – and all because of the sharks!

I joined Twitter seven years ago,  and I was, and continue to be amazed by how many people out there run moth traps*. One of the many side-effects of the Covid-19 crisis is an increase in the number of trappers; every day my Twitter feed is filled with pictures of their more notable specimens.  The other day in response to this deluge of moths, I remarked on the fact that the common names of moths range from the extremely prosaic, to completely lyrical flights of fancy. Take for example, the baldly descriptive Orange Underwing and the gloriously named Merveille du Jour.  To these I could add the beautiful, but literally named, Green Silver Lines and the bizarrely named Purple Thorn.

Orange Underwing and the Merveille de Jour.

Green Silver Lines and a Purple Thorn. I see no purple 🙂

Now, I have seen a mouse moth in action, so I totally get its name. On the other hand, while browsing Paul Waring and Martin Townsend’s excellent Field Guide (I was trying to identify a Yellow Shell I had come across in the garden), I noticed a mention to the sharks. Intrigued, I skipped down to the species notes to see why they were called sharks. The answer was simple; Paul and Martin say it is the way their wings are folded at rest to give the appearance of  a dorsal fin. Looking at the picture, I could live with that, and it also gave me an idea.

As loyal readers will know, I have a penchant for delving into insect names.  Who could forget my in-depth investigation into the naming of thrips or the mystery of the wheat dolphin? I figured that here was yet another subject for a blog. I had, however, been beaten to the punch!  Naturalist Extraordinaire, Peter Marren has written a whole book about the often, gnomic names of Lepidoptera :-). Having discovered it, I had, of course, to buy it. You will be glad to know, that even though it cost me the princely sum of £20, and although as a Yorkshireman, I toyed with the idea of getting a second hand copy, I don’t regret the purchase one iota.

Peter Marren (2019) Little Toller Books £20

It is a lovely little book. It is amusingly written, brimming with history and filled with factoids over which any entomologist setting a Pub Quiz will drool.  Take my word for it, well worth the investment.  My only complaint is that there aren’t enough colour plates, but that is only a minor quibble. I don’t want to stop you buying Peter’s book so I am only treating you to a few of the gems contained therein.

I’ll start with the more obvious ones. There is a group of moths within the Erebidae (they were Noctuids when I was student) known as the snouts.  When you look at them from above it is obvious why. They have long palps that protrude very noticeably, forming a very distinctive snout. Just to confuse you, some pyralid moths are also known as snout moths, but their snouts are feeble affairs.

Hypena proboscidalis – The Snout

In the Noctuidae proper, we have the one that started it all, the shark, Cucullia umbratica, so called because it is sleek, grey and from above has a pointed shark like nose and a dorsal fin.

Cucullia umbratica – the shark.  yes, it is quite shark-like, but also a bit like a bit of bark. Perhaps it should be called the wood chip 🙂

 

Also within the Noctuidae we find the wainscots, so named because their pale grainy wings resemble wood panelling.

Mythimna pallens –  common wainscot and would definitely be able to hide in a wood panelled study

The three examples above definitely fit their common names.  The next two I feel have been somewhat misnamed.

Yet another Noctuid, this time Acronicta psi, the Grey Dagger.  According to Peter Marren, the markings on the wings look like daggers.  Personally I don’t see them, but I do see something that resembles pairs of of scissors 🙂

Daggers – the grey dagger wing markings suggest daggers, but look more like scissors to me

And finally, a Geometrid, a pug.  Supposedly the resting posture is reminiscent of the head of a pug dog with its drooping jaws.

Pug anyone? I don’t see it myself – someone must have had an overactive imagination!

 

If you want to know about the brocades, shoulderknots, carpets, quakers, prominents, rustics, eggars, thorns, sallows, and all the others, you’re going to have have to buy his book

Reference

Waring, P. & Townsend, M. (2003) Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset, UK.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Butterfly Conservation Trust for allowing me to use the moth photographs.

*it always amuses me how many of them are vertebrate ecologists 🙂

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The Devil’s Darning Needle – Dragonfly names at home and abroad

Guess what?  I’m procrastinating yet again. 🙂 I’m supposed to be finishing off the aquatic insects chapter of my book, but despite being confined to the house because of Covid-19, I’m finding it difficult to settle down to a protracted session of book writing; but a blog post, no problems 🙂

Crimson pepper pod / add two pairs of wings, and look / darting dragonfly  Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

As I have already written about the weird and wonderful names of caddisflies, it seemed appropriate to do a similar exercise for another group of insect associated with the aquatic environment, the Odonata, in particular, the dragonflies. Although individual species of dragonflies have accrued a host of descriptive names in the English language, hawkers, chasers, darters, clubtails, skimmers, to name but a few, globally, names for the group as a whole, show much less imagination.  On the other hand, some of them have very weird translations back into English 🙂   Countries where the language has Germanic roots tend to name them with variations on Dragonfly.  There are, of course, some exceptions; the Danes call them goldsmiths, or possibly jewellers. Countries with a language with Latin roots go for versions based on the Latin for balance or level, libella which in turn is descended from the word libra, which as well as being a scale was a unit of measure. This might seem a bit odd, but in some cultures, the Devil was thought to use dragonflies to weigh or measure people’s souls so this could be how this came about. Perhaps of interest, the Libellulidae (Common Skimmers) are the largest family of Odonata, and was named thus by the French entomologist Jules Rambur (1801-1870), a very obviously Latinised version of the French Libelluele.

Returning to the common names of species, the Danes seem to mainly call their Odonates water nymphs, and like the English, precede that with a colourful description.  For example, Lestes sponsa is the Plain Copper Water Nymph, the Hawkers, on the other hand, are mosaikgoldsmeds which literally translates to mosaic jewellers, but which Google Translate, very helpfully renders as hawker.  I was very disappointed with the French; I expected some wonderfully descriptive and lyrical names.  Agrion blanchâtre, whitish Agrion was a bit of an anti-climax 🙂

Despite their beauty, dragonflies somehow seem to have got a bit of a bad press along the way, and become associated with the Devil, as mentioned earlier about measuring and weighing souls.  They were also reputed to sew up the mouths of naughty children, hence the Devil’s darning needles, and make people blind and deaf; eye-pokers and ear cutters. The claspers being the needles and pokers. One of the common names in Romania is St George’s Horse, which so legend has it, the devil transformed into a giant dragonfly (Mitchell & Lasswell, 2005).  This may also explain the horse references in Croatian and Lithuanian.  For a long and very informative read about the folklore of dragonflies and their names, this is an excellent, if long read. Make sure you check out the Turkish for dragonfly, yusufçuk; it seems to be one of a kind.  I am sure that there must be an explanation somewhere 🙂

 

Bulgarian           vodno konche  vodno = water but konche means of course!

Burmese             နဂါးငွေ့တန် it looks very pretty but when you do retranslate, it gives you Milky Way!

Croatian             vilin konjic – fairy horse

Czech                  vážka

Danish                guldsmed goldsmith?

Dutch                 libel and drakenvlieg

Finnish                sudenkorento    suden can mean wolf

French                libellule

Gaelic                 tairbh nathrach taken separately = bulls snake

German              Libelle and Drachenfliege and der Wasserjungfer (water maid of honour)

Greek                  λιβελούλα  liveloúla

Icelandic            Drekafluga

Irish                    dragan

Italian                 libellula

Latvian               spāre

Lithuanian          laumžirgis depending on where you break the word up you can get laumž meaning fairies or žirgis meaning horse!

Maltese              mazzarell or ibellula

Norwegian         Drage flue but also Øyenstikker eye-poker

Polish                 ważka

Portuguese        libélula but also Cavalo judeu, Jewish horse

Romanian          libelulă

Russia                 strekoza

Slovak                 vážka

Spanish               libélula

Swedish              trollslända  note that  troll is troll or perhaps hobgoblin

Turkish               yusufçuk if you break this up into two words you get Joseph’s dick!

Welsh                 gwas y neidr Adder’s servant

 

Finally, to end with a bit of biology, Odonates use their wings in a unique manner. Other four-winged insects beat them synchronously, but dragonflies can beat the fore and hind pairs independently. This allows three different modes of flight in which the wing pairs beat (1) synchronously, as those of other insects, (2) alternately between the two sets, or (3) synchronously but out of phase with each other. This allows dragonflies and damselflies to display a variety of aerial aerobatics, including hovering, backward flight, and the ability to turn on a midair pivot. No wonder they are such good predators.

 

Reference

Mitchell, F.L. & Lasswell, J.L. (2005) A Dazzle of Dragonflies. Texas A & M University Press.

 

Postscript

I also discovered that Clematis virginiana is, in some parts of the World, called the Devil’s darning needle 🙂

 

 

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Pick and Mix 27 – some things I found of interest; perhaps you will too?

Not a painting, but a photograph I took through the train window – in between Sete and Montpellier

 

Even hares eat meat sometimes

Continuing the carnivorous theme, an Interesting article about pitcher plants

The iconic palm trees of the south of France are under threat

Hope for the future?  Blog post by Joern Fischer about sustainability

And here Jeff Ollerton reflects on the above

Another name for biodiversity offsetting, but it still doesn’t add up

A call for more common names for moths

How insect art can become entomological outreach

Ted MacRae on his latest insect collecting trip – some fantastic photographs

How to thread a needle easily – fantastic but does it actually work?

 

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