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
Danish guldsmed goldsmith?
Dutch libel and drakenvlieg
Finnish sudenkorento suden can mean wolf
Gaelic tairbh nathrach taken separately = bulls snake
German Libelle and Drachenfliege and der Wasserjungfer (water maid of honour)
Greek λιβελούλα liveloúla
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
Portuguese libélula but also Cavalo judeu, Jewish horse
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.
Mitchell, F.L. & Lasswell, J.L. (2005) A Dazzle of Dragonflies. Texas A & M University Press.
I also discovered that Clematis virginiana is, in some parts of the World, called the Devil’s darning needle 🙂