Monday, April 18, 2011

Etymology vs. Entomology: Two unrelated words with two unrelated stories

et·y·mol·o·gy (n) the study of historical linguistic change, especially as manifested in individual words. From the Greek étymo, meaning true, and lógos, meaning reason.

For someone with as poor spelling skills as I have, I sure do love me some word origins. So it should really come as no surprise that as a friend and I stood in line at the grocery story, we debated the word origins of ass (i.e., rear end) and asinine (i.e., silly). Our conversation was quite animated, and as we were in a rather busy grocery store in D.C. rather late at night, I'm sure many customers were glad they had left their children at home.

The guy behind us in line--whom I believe was just as intrigued by our conversation as we were--finally looked it up on his phone. Come to find out, ass (i.e., rear end) and asinine (i.e., silly) do not share word origins. However, ass (i.e., donkey) and asinine (i.e., silly) do. We thought this wonderful news as we could then feel completely justified in using the word ass in reference to a person acting ridiculous without being accused of using vulgarity.

(Notice the correct usage of i.e. from the Latin id est, meaning that is, and not e.g. from the Latin exemplī grātiā, meaning for example.)

en·to·mol·o·gy (n) the branch of zoology dealing with insects. From the Greek éntoma, meaning insect, and lógos, meaning reason.

My friend took an entomology class in college, and we'd catch bugs for him to mount and study. At the time I lived in a basement apartment, and my roommates caught this enormous praying mantis because they knew David would want it. This mantis was so aggressive that it hissed and screamed and snapped all the way to the ethyl acetate then frozen for two days*. It was totally disturbing but looked really cool mounted.

Only the next day, David went back to the lab and found that it was a zombie mantis come back to life. Angrier than ever, it was struggling to free itself from the mounting block. So he drowned it in ethanol and did some other things to ensure its demise that I won't go into. I had nightmares about it coming to get me in my sleep for a week. I still can't see a praying mantis without a little shiver running down my spine.

(Despite the homophone--or heterograph--a praying mantis is called such because it looks like it's in the act of supplication and not because of its aggressive perusal of prey.)

*Apparently my memory isn't that good because David had to correct some of my zombie mantis details. But he tells me the mantis is still in the BYU-Idaho insect collection as far as he knows.


  1. I love, love, love the absolute nerdiness of this post. And I love, love, love that his praying mantis came back to creepy!

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I love being a nerd, especially as I'm in such good company.

  3. Waaay creepy about the praying mantis. I would for sure have nightmares about that!

    I think word origins are interesting too! :)

  4. Perfectly asinine. Perfectly perfect. You really should publish your book.

  5. Maybe I should write a memoir based on word origins. That would be kind of fun, only I don't have enough memories to write more than a couple chapters.