Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.


Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Insect Words Can be Pests to Crossword Puzzle Addicts

Word puzzles have been around for many centuries. Humans, it seems, have always enjoyed playing games with words. Take the crossword puzzle for instance. Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool , is credited with introducing the first crossword. It appeared in the New York World, a Sunday newspaper in 1913.

That first crossword was not exactly like the crosswords we see today. It wasn't square-shaped. It didn't have any of those familiar black squares. But clues were used to determine words. These words were to be placed in a series of left-to-right and top-to-bottom boxes.

The idea caught on, and, by the 1920s, many newspapers ran crossword puzzles. Now you can find crosswords in most newspapers and all airline magazines. My wife likes to do crossword puzzles, and she is good at it. But, I must say, at times she seeks my assistance with a clue or two. When there is a question about insects or sports, she will seek my counsel. I guess you could say that I'm a kind of specialist with a limited field when it comes to crossword questions. Sometimes, I even come up with a correct answer!

Working crosswords is not one of my favorite things. But there are people who really like crosswords. To me, working crossword puzzles is a bit like mowing the lawn; you feel good when you're done, but you'll have to do it again next week. I'm told that working crosswords is good for you. It keeps your mind active. Apparently, your mind needs exercise as much as your body. I guess working crossword puzzles is "jogging for the mind."

In spite of my ambivalence toward crossword puzzles, I was curious about the use of insects in the clues. So I procured a copy of a New York Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus. I went through the first 100 entries in search of clues related to the insect world. I found 50 entries. I did not count a couple of questions regarding the game of cricket and threw out a question that mentioned "bug" apparently in reference to a disease.

I did include questions that indirectly related to insects. For instance, "banned pesticide" of three letters. There were several clues that involved insects indirectly: "Where the Bee Sucks" Composer; Hit song from "The Firefly;" and Delaney's "A _______ Honey." Old sayings, "_______bug in a rug" and "Fly in the ointment" were included, as was a book title, "______ the Flies."

Some insect questions were directly related to biology. "Hymenopterous insects" of four letters could be bees or ants, but a three-letter word for "Carpenter with six legs" is an ant for sure. "Culex's kin" of five letters has to be a midge. Culex is a mosquito genus name, and midges are similar insects. A four-letter word for "Hornet" is wasp and a "Religious insect" of six letters is the mantid or mantis -- either word is correct usage. "Plant louse" in five letters is an aphid. Speaking of five letters, queen works for "Winged ant" and drone for "Male honey bee."

Some of the clues were kind of general. For instance, "A butterfly" with five letters. How about zebra, or comma, or satyr? I went to a crossword puzzle dictionary to see what kinds of terms were included. There under "butterfly," I found my five-letter selections. If seven letters were needed, you could choose between admiral, buckeye, monarch, skipper, troilus, vanessa and vicroy. There were also entries for butterfly with eight, 10, 11 and 12 letters. And, for butterfly itself, the dictionary included lepidopteran and papilionaceous.

Under the clue "insect" there were all kinds of options. But, wait; a nit is a louse egg, not an insect. Sow bugs, spiders, pill bugs and harvestmen aren't insects either but were listed anyway. Pointing out such scientifically incorrect answers to crossword puzzle addicts is fruitless. Some might even call you a nitpicker, which could be a 14-letter clue for "louse egg hunter"!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox