NOVEMBER
2000

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-22-00

Some Well-Turned Phrases Insect Infested

A concise or aptly expressed thought is sometimes captured in what can be called a well-turned phrase. Such word combinations are memorable. They stand out from everyday language.

According to Purdue linguistics professor Victor Raskin, some well-turned phrases find common usage in language. When that happens, the phrases sometimes become trite and are classified as clichés.

Throughout history, some of the finest wordsmiths have turned to the insect world to produce well-turned phrases. Homer the Greek poet did in his epics. To describe the Greek host at Troy, Homer wrote “as numerous as flies near the farmer's milk in spring time.”

Homer described troops pouring out to battle in the Trojan War as “wrathful wasps teased and roused to action by irresponsible young boys.” This word picture in living color is as descriptive today as it was in Homer's time.

The poetic language of the Bible provides a well-turned phrase or two with insects. From King Solomon we learn: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” And in an effort to express a great number, this phrase comes from Judges 6-5: “...and they came as grasshoppers for multitude for both they and their camels were without numbers.”

When it came to crafting a well-turned phrase, no one has done it better than Shakespeare. In “Henry VI” we learn, “The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.” In “Love's Labor,” Shakespeare describes a minimal amount as “...have no more man's blood in's belly than will sup a flea.”

And speaking of fleas, in “Henry VII” we read: “That's a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.” From fleas to flies, the Bard describes the unromantic Romeo in this way: “...more courtship lives in carrion flies than Romeo, ...” In “King Lear” we read: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Modern writers also turn a phrase or two with an insect theme. To describe her disdain for insects, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard writes the following in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “More than one insect—the possibility of fertile reproduction—is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.” Dillard also describes termite workers carrying eggs away from their queen as “longshoremen unloading the Queen Mary.”

Dayton Hyde wrote a nature story about a farmer raising a litter of coyote pups entitled “Don Coyote.” In it, he describes a coyote pup carrying a petunia blossom “...as though it were a brilliant butterfly...” It's easy to visualize how the pup was carrying that flower!

Kobo Abe in “The Woman in the Dunes” describes a passionate woman as “glowing from within now, as if she were being washed by a wave of fireflies.” And speaking of fireflies, it was astronaut John Glenn who described the sight from the space capsule in his first orbital flight as “a field of fireflies.”

And on a less-flattering level, a few years back in the wake of the scandal surrounding the International Olympic Committee, some of the principles were described as “running like cockroaches from the light.” It may not be a well-turned phrase, but hardly a person is alive who doesn't understand what is being said.

So it is with other sayings. A fly in the soup or the ointment is generally understood. And everyone knows what is happening when a bug is put in someone's ear. While these insect sayings might at one time have been well-turned phases, time and usage have turned them into clichés.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox