Earlier this year I wrote about the debate that rages about the correct way to talk about thrips during which I got distracted and ended up writing about their names in different languages. It turns out that I am not alone in being curious about international insect naming. I have just finished reading Matthew Gandy’s excellent book Moth, where he waxes lyrical about the different names used to describe butterflies and moths around the world. This, of course, made me wonder what aphid would turn up, so armed with dictionaries and Google Translate, I traveled the world to see what I could discover.
The bronze-brown dandelion aphid, Uroleucon taraxaci – Photo by Jasper Hubert
There are a lot of languages so I am only going to highlight a few versions of aphid that I found interesting or surprising. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Linneaus coined the word Aphides, which may (or not) have been inspired by the Ancient Greek ἀφειδής (apheidḗs) meaning unsparing, perhaps in relation to their rapid reproduction and feeding habits. The modern spelling of aphid seems to have come into being after the Second World War, although you could still find aphides being used in the late 1940s (e.g. Broadbent et al., 1948; Kassanis, 1949), and it can still be found in more recent scientific literature where the journal is hosted in a non-English speaking country.
Many aphid names are very obviously based on the modern Latin word coined by Linneaus, although in some countries more than one name can be used, as in the UK where aphid is the technical term but blackfly and green-fly are also commonly used.
Aphide derived names
Hindu एफिड ephid
More common are those names that relate to the vague resemblance that aphids have to lice and to their plant feeding habit. The term plant lice to describe aphids was commonly used in the scientific literature up and into the early 1930s (e.g. Mordvilko, 1928; Marcovitch, 1935).
Names linked to the putative resemblance to lice and their plant feeding habit
Bosnian lisna uš uš is louse, lisna derived from leaf
Bulgarian listna vŭshka vŭshka louse, listna plant leaf
Danish bladlaus blad is leaf, laus louse
Dutch bladluis blad is leaf, luis is louse
Estonian lehetäi leht is leaf, tai is louse
German Blattlaus blatt is leaf, laus is louse
Greek pseíra ton fytón louse on plant
Hungarian levéltetű leve is leaf, tetű is louse
Icelandic lús or blaðlús lús is louse, blað is plant
Latvian laputs lapa is, uts is louse
Norwegian bladlus blad is plant, lus is louse
Swedish bladlus as for Norwegian
If you draw siphunculi on to a louse and add a cauda to the rear end you can just about see the resemblance.
Louse with added siphunculi and cauda
Names based on the premise that aphids resemble fleas
French puceron puce is flea
Spanish pulgón pulga is flea
Flea with cauda and siphunclus, but still only a poor imitation of the real thing. Even with added aphid features I don’t see the resemblance 🙂
In Turkish, aphid is yaprak biti which roughly translates to leaf biter. There are then a few languages where there appears to be no connection with their appearance or feeding habit.
Other names for aphid
Chinese 蚜 Yá
Tamil அசுவினி Acuviṉi
In Lithuanian, where aphid is Mszyca, which looks like it might be derived from Myzus, an important aphid genus, aphid also translates to amaras which means blight. In the case of a heavy aphid infestation, this is probably an apt description. I was also amused to find that whilst the Welsh have a name for aphid, Scottish Gaelic does not.
My all-time favourite, and one for which I can find no explanation at all, is dolphin. According to Curtis (1845), aphids on cereals in some counties of England were known as wheat dolphins. I was also able to trace the use of this name back to the previous century (Marsham, 1798), but again with no explanation why this name should have arisen.
The wheat dolphin 🙂
Broadbent, L., Doncaster, J.P., Hull, R. & Watson, M.A. (1948) Equipment used for trapping and identifying alate aphides. Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London (A), 23, 57-58.
Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.
Gandy, M. (2016) Moth, Reaktion Books, London
Kassanis, B. (1949) The transmission of sugar-beet yellows virus by mechanical inoculation. Annals of Applied Biology, 36, 270-272.
Marcovitch, S. (1935) Experimental evidence on the value of strip farming as a method for the natural control of injurious insects with special reference to plant lice. Journal of Economic Entomology, 28, 62-70.
Marsham, T. (1798) XIX. Further observations on the wheat insect, in a letter to the Rev. Samuel Goodenough, L.L.D. F.R.S. Tr.L.S. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London, 4, 224-229.
Mordvilko, A. (1928) LXX.—The evolution of cycles and the origin of Heteroecy (migrations) in plant-lice , Annals and Magazine of Natural History: Series 10, 2, 570-582.