By Any Name, A Cockroach is Still A Cockroach
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was recycled from Nov. 10, 1994.
Cockroaches would not be on most people's favorite-insect list. In fact, cockroaches might just be among the most hated insects in the world.
Why the cockroach has reached the lofty peak as the most hated among insects is not entirely clear. P.B. Cornwell, in his book "The Cockroach," suggests that even though cockroaches are potential carriers of disease, their pest status is primarily due to aesthetic abhorrence. We consider them loathsome intruders into our abodes. They run fast and unpredictably. They produce a characteristic odor and foul anything they contact with their excrement, including our food. Their numbers can increase dramatically.
The scientific names for cockroaches give little indication of their pest status. Some such names are based on Blatta, the Latin word for this insect. For instance, Blatta orientalis and Blattella germanica. The word cockroach itself is probably derived from the Spanish word "cucaracha," however one of the earliest names for this insect was "lucifuga," an apparent reference to its habit of shunning the light.
Of all the insects in the world, no group has more local names than the cockroach. The Oriental cockroach has been called black beetle in England. This is an apparent reference to its color and the English habit of calling any insect that crawls a beetle. It also has been called the mill beetle and the black clock, probably because it appeared at dusk. In the United States this cockroach is frequently called a water bug, in reference to the damp areas of a home where it is frequently found.
The German cockroach, one of the most common cockroaches found in our homes, is known by a variety of names including steam bug and shiner. It is called the Croton bug in the eastern United States. This name is based on large increases in its populations in New York about the time the Croton aquaduct was constructed.
The American cockroach is known in the southeastern United States as the palmetto bug because it hides in the bark of palmetto trees. On ships, the American roach is called the Bombay canary.
One interesting pattern of naming cockroaches is to name them for groups of people who are disliked. In northern Germany the cockroach is called "Schwabe," a term used to describe southern Germans. In southern Germany these insects are popularly known as "Preusse," after the northern Germans. In East Germany the local name is "Russe," after the Russians, and in West Germany they're called "Franzose," after the French. In Nova Scotia a cockroach is called Yankee settler.
I don't suppose naming the despicable cockroach after a group of people you don't like would be politically correct, but it does get a message across.