Sunday, July 23, 2006

What's in a Name?

Here is the unedited text for an article I wrote for the Stanley Park Ecology Society's next newsletter.



Our names reveal much about family history, our culture and our origins.
Many insects' names can tell us about the habits and activities of a
specific species. A water strider skims along a pond's surface. A
whirligig beetle spins rapidly before descending beneath the water's
surface. Some insects' names, however, tell us more about the people who
named them than the creatures themselves. The earwig is an excellent
example of insect-naming gone wrong. Let's look at where a little
knowledge and a lot of fear has taken us in the past.

The common earwig gained its name from an ill deserved reputation. It was
thought that these insects were bent on laying eggs inside the human ear.
It may seem strange to us that a harmless and beneficial creature could
evoke such apprehension, but people unfamiliar with the habits of
earwigs were fearful of these insects.

At a time when fashion popularized the periwig, people did not consider
bathing to be healthy. To an earwig, a sweat soaked wig on a night stand
was an excellent source of moisture. To the wearer of that wig, the
earwigs were laying in wait to stealthfully climb in to the ears (and
brains) of the unsuspecting victim! The last thing these insects would
want to eat is a human brain. Earwigs generally consume decaying plant
matter, slug and snail eggs, aphids and other garden pests. They are also
superb parents, looking after their young and defending them from
predators.

For added perspective, the people who named the earwig also believed that
dragonflies would sneak up on the unsuspecting sleeper and sew their lips
shut! That is why many dragonflies still bear the name "darner", which
means "one who sews". It's funny how the human imagination and the
unknown can produce monsters, that when examined closely, become beautiful
insects.

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