Who Was That Masked Mantis?

By Rob Kyff

May 22, 2019 3 min read

Picture a mosquito with a musket, a mantis with a crystal ball, and a larva wearing a mask. Entomology meets etymology, as the Word Guy SWAT team tracks down the fascinating origins of insect names.

— Mosquito: The Latin word for a fly was "musca," which became "mosca" in Spanish and Italian. Because a mosquito is smaller than a fly, both languages devised diminutives of "mosca" to describe it: the Spanish "mosquito" and the Italian "moschetto."

The Italians, noting a similarity between a crossbow firing an arrow and a mosquito delivering a sting, began calling a crossbow a "moschetto." So when the gun, which fired bullets like a crossbow shoots arrows, was invented, they dubbed it a "moschetto," which became "mousquet" in French.

Both the French "mousquet" (Anglicized to "musket") and the Spanish "mosquito" entered English during the late 1500s, just in time for the English colonists at Jamestown to shoot muskets at tormenting mosquitos.

— Mantis: In ancient Greek, the word for a prophet was "mantis." So when the Greeks noticed that a certain insect often raised its front legs like a prophet in prayer, they called it a "mantis." This term entered Latin and appeared in English in 1658. Because the female mantis often assumes this praying posture while eating the male after mating, we can only wonder whether this feast is the answer to her prayers.

— Larva: The Latin word "larva" originally referred to a ghost or specter as well as to any terrifying mask worn to represent such a spirit. This "mask" meaning survived in English well into the 1700s. During the late 1600s, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus used "larva" to describe the wormlike stage of an insect, a period when its final form is masked or hidden.

— Butterfly: Linguists have dismissed the story that "butterfly" is a reversal of the consonant sounds in "flutter by," but the exact origin of this word is as elusive as the beautiful creature itself. We do know that "butterfly" derives from the Old English "buterfleoge," a combination of "butere" (butter) and "fleoge" (fly), but it's not clear just how butter is involved.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary claimed that the butterfly is so named because it first appears in spring, the season for butter making. But some suggest it refers to the belief that witches assumed the form of butterflies to steal butter; others say it describes the yellow color of the insect's excrement.

Who knows how all this "butterfly" speculation will churn out?

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: LubosHouska at Pixabay

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