Daily Archives: December 7, 2010


You could see this word as looking like a line of little bugs heading from the left to the right, with the ones at the right getting… well, either larger or chewed up. In sound, it starts out soft-ish, and then gets to be a bit like a stuffed mouth trying to say something, but ends a little crisper. The rhythm is a trochee plus a dactyl, like etymology.

It’s a two-piece word made from Greek bits. The second half should be recognizable from anthopophagus, macrophage, sarcophagus, onychophagia, and a host of similar words, some less familiar than others: it’s from φαγειν phagein, “eat”. The first half is from εντομος entomos, “insect”; I don’t find it sounds especially insect-like – no buzzes or clicks, just those warm, soft nasals with a stop in the middle – but, yes, it does have a bug-like look. It actually comes from a root meaning “cut up”, because insects have bodies divided into different segments.

So, yeah, it’s eating bugs – cut up or whole, raw, cooked, or live. Does that sound horrifying, disgusting, creepy, et cetera? Well, people in many parts of the world do it, sometimes with considerable relish (and sometimes with no condiments at all). There are communities within Judaism that consider some kinds of locust kosher (I’d stick with locust bean, myself). And, hey, who hasn’t eaten bee puke? It’s great stuff – never spoils – and so flavourful. Most people call it honey.

But of course eating honey doesn’t count as entomophagy any more than drinking milk counts as eating beef. Does eating spiders or centipedes count as entomophagy? It does by the looser definition that allows other creepy-crawlies also to count. (My wife would consider eating shrimp or lobster a kind of entomophagy, given that they are, in her words, “disgusting sea insects” – to which I reply, “I’ll have yours, then.”) But is that true to origins?

Well, we should always remember that etymology is not a suitable guide to the current meaning of a word. The mistaken belief that you can know the true meaning of a word by studying its origins is called the etymological fallacy. Etymology is interesting and often useful information, but words can change their meanings quite entirely over time. As I go to troubles to show, sometimes it’s through cultural shifts, sometimes through aesthetic effect of sound, sometimes through sound resemblance to other words (up to and including shift of sense through confusion). I wonder whether someday the occasional confusion between etymology and entomology will become cemented… Probably not.

But it happens that the very word etymology has an origin that supports the etymological fallacy if you believe it, and disproves it if you don’t: it’s from ετυμος etymos “true” and λογος logos “reason” or “word”. If etymology is about finding the true meaning, then you can say that etymology is really about finding the true meaning; if it is simply about finding the history, then regardless of its origin, etymology is really about finding the history.

And why do I dig up the histories of words, then? Why, to taste them. I like a nice, rich, layered etymology, with its complex flavours. I guess you could call my tasting and digestion of them etymophagy. And so much better than entomophagy… ain’t that the truth!