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Etymology—the tracing of the history of words—is sometimes the fun part of language. Etymology is a way of viewing history through the changes in our vocabulary and pronunciation. Etymology also reflects political, social and cultural changes.


The common name for this insect is not a blend word coming from “cock” (a male fowl) and “roach” (a freshwater fish). It comes into English from Spanish and more specifically from English-speaking colonists in Virginia mishearing and mispronouncing the Spanish word “cucaracha.” Captain John Smith rendered the Spanish as “cacarootch” in which he used “caca” meaning “shit.” According to Captain Smith, in General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (published in 1624):

“A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.”
In the nineteenth century, some people shortened “cockroach” to “roach” in order to avoid uttering the first syllable. At this same time, the children’s “cockhorse” became a “rocking horse.”

The etymology of “cockroach” is considered by linguists to be an example of folk etymology: the process in which a “foreign” sounding word is adapted by speakers to sound more familiar.


The name “earwig” does not come from “wig” but from the Anglo-Saxon “ēarwicga” in which “wicga” means “insect.”  “Wicga” is also the basis of the modern English “wiggle”, which initially described the movement of some insects. The English “earwig” can be translated as “ear insect.”

The Anglo-Saxon “wicga” comes from the proto-Germanic “*wig-”.  

People have been concerned about earwigs crawling into their ears for thousands of years. Pliny the Elder once wrote:

“If an earwig be gotten into the eare…spit into the same, and it will come forth anon.”

The dormouse is a small European rodent that nests in trees and bushes. Dormice (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the plural was dormouses) are both nocturnal and hibernatory. When people encountered the dormice, they were usually asleep. Thus the “dor” in “dormouse” probably comes from the French “dormer” meaning “to sleep” which is also the basis of “dormant.” The French “dormer” comes from the Latin “dormire.”

A closing note on etymology:

 While etymology is fun, John McWhorter, in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writes:

“Etymology is, in fact, but one tiny corner of what modern linguistic science involves, and linguists are not formally trained in it.”

Originally posted to Cranky Grammarians on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:58 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires.

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