Tag Archives: etymology

Striders, Skaters, Tailors, Water Spiders and Measurers too – Gerrid Names Around the World

Dedicated followers of my blog will know that I have a bit of a thing about the names people call commonly seen insects around the World. Who can forget the Wheat Dolphin, the Alder Warbler, the Hairy Winged Water Butterflies and the great Thrips debate?  You may also recall that I am writing a book, the deadline for which is fast approaching.  I am also a first-class procrastinator and being just about to start the chapter on aquatic insects which is proving to be a bit more challenging than I thought it would be, found myself heading straight into procrastinator mode 🙂

I have always found Gerrids* fascinating, their ability to skim across the surface of ponds and streams, and to dodge my childhood attempts to catch them bare handed along with the painful discovery, that, like any insect with a piercing mouthpart, they can ‘sting’ 🙂 Although not as exciting as aphids 🙂 Gerrids have some interesting facets to their biology and ecology. They have short- and long-winged forms (Fairbairn, 1988), use ‘ripple communication’ to attract mates (Hayashi, 1985) and some species show territorial behaviour and mate guarding (Arnqvist, 1988).  Even more fascinating, and something I didn’t’ discover until I was in my early forties and swimming off the coast of Mauritius (work, not holiday), that although 90% of Gerrids are freshwater dwellers, there are forty species within the genus Halobates, the Sea and Ocean Skaters, five of which are truly marine.  The naturalist Johann von Eschscholtz first discovered them during his voyage on the Russian expeditionary ship Rurik between 1815 and 1818.  I hope that when I get round to finishing my book you will be able to read more about them.  In the meantime, more details can be found in the key references listed at the end of this article.

My previous excursions into global insect names have involved my own limited language skills, Google Translate and direct emails to friends from around the World.  This time I thought I would give the Twitter community a chance to display their collective wisdom.  I was not disappointed. Within 48 hours of posting my request for help, had an excellent collection of names, including dialectal variations, which I would never have come across otherwise.  The majority of the names, as you might expect, refer to the ability that Gerrids have of walking or skating on water, so much so that in parts of North America they are known as Jesus Bugs. More surprising, are the references to tailors and shoemakers and measuring.  This could have its roots in the way in which before the invention of tape measures, cloth merchants and tailors measured lengths of fabric using yardsticks or by extending their arms and holding the cloth from hand to shoulder, which could be seen to resemble the way in which Pond Skaters moved their legs. That said, in the UK, the name, water measurer is reserved for members of the Hydrometridae. Some confusion or overlap also occurred with Water Boatmen, in the USA, the Corixids, in the UK, the backswimmers, Notonecta. Corixids have paddle shaped legs and swim, while backswimmers, also with paddles, swim upside down.  True Pond Skaters, the Gerrids, move across the water surface, they really do walk on water.

Finally, here, mainly from Europe, are the results.  If anyone has more languages to add please do so in the comments.

Afrikaans             Waterloper – water walker

Arabic                   بركة متزلج   barakat mutazalij – no idea but looks pretty 🙂

Bulgarian            водомерка Vodomеrka (voda = water, mеrka = measure)

Canadian             Water skeeters, Jesus Bugs

Czech                    Vodoměrka (voda = water, měř = measure)

Danish                  Skøjteløbere – which word by word translates to skater-runners but simply means skaters

Dutch                    Schaatsenrijders – skaters.

Finnish                  Vesimittari =water measurer; mittari is also the Finnish name for Geometridae moths, such as winter moth = hallamittari = frost measurer

Flemish                Schrijvertje, little writer.

French                  Araignée d’eau, also Patineur,  which is also the name used for an ice skater! Derived from « Patin » which is an ice skate. In the local language of South-Eastern France, le provençal. It is called Lou courdounié, that means “the shoe maker” (cordonnier in French). Apparently, the movement of their legs is reminiscent of the way in which shoemakers work

Galician                Zapateiro, shoe maker, but also costureira, dress maker, pita cega, blind hen, and cabra cega, blind goat

German               Wasserläufer, water runners. In some parts of Germany, the colloquial term is Schneider or Wasserschneider, water tailor

Hungarian           Molnárpoloskák, where molnár = miller and poloskák = Heteroptera

Italian                    Ragni d’acqua, directly translates as water spiders

Latin                      Tippula – water walker, very light – see this extract from Ian Beavis’ book

Polish                    Nartnik wodny. Nartnik is a derivation of narciarz meaning skier; wodny means associated with water.

Portuguese        Alfaiate, tailor

Russian                 Vodomerki (водомерки),  = water measurers

Spanish                The “official” name in Spanish seems to be “guérridos” (from its Latin name, Gerris lacustrae), but more commonly called zapateros,      shoe makers. Patinador de estanque skater of ponds, also chinche de agua, watert bug, cucaracha de agua, water flea, saltacharcos (?),  limpia aguas Tapaculos, clean water Tapaculos in southern Spain’s Spanish. Any clues on the etymology of the last two gratefully received.

Swedish               Skräddare , tailor, because their leg-motions look like scissors cutting.  Also known as vattenlöpare, water-runners.

Tamil                  நீர்தாண்டி (neerthaandi); neer means water and thandi is akin to crossing/crosser, so water crosser would be the closest direct translation.  It may be an overactive imagination, but to me the first character looks like someone skating 🙂

Welsh                   Rhiain y dwr, Lords of the water but also hirheglyn y dŵr, water long-legs

 

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

 

References

Arnqvist, G. (1988)  Mate guarding and sperm displacement in the water strider Gerris lateralis Schumm. (Heteroptera: Gerridae).  Freshwater Biology, 19,269-274.

Cheng, L. (1985) Biology of Halobates (Heteroptera: Gerridae). Annual Review of Entomology, 30, 111-135.

Fairbairn, D.J. (1988) Adaptive significance of wing dimorphism in the absence of dispersal: a comparative study of wing morphs in the waterstrider Gerris remigis. Ecological Entomology, 13, 273-281.

Hayashi, K. (1985) Alternative mating strategies in the water strider Gerris elongntus (Heteroptera, Gerridae). Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, 16, 301-306.

Spence, J.R. & Anderson, N.M. (1994) Biology of water striders: interactions between systematics and ecology.  Annual Review of Entomology, 39, 101-128.

*Gerrids are true bugs, Hemiptera, which are characterised by the possession of piercing and sucking mouthparts.

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

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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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