biology zoology blog benno meyer insects and idioms

Insects and idioms

A great deal of research is not necessary to show that attitudes towards insects and other little creepy crawlies (at least in western societies) are predominantly negative. And who’d be surprised: nobody loves to be pestered by flies, to be kept awake by annoying mosquitoes or to fear being stung by wasps. Moreover, there is this lingering (and justified) anxiety that some insects can transmit diseases and the knowledge that in the past fleas had been responsible for the spread of the Black Death, also known as bubonic plague and pestilence. But could insect idioms have played a role in our attitude towards them?

With my friend Aimo Kejonen we have recently analysed references to insects in Finnish idioms related to food and eating. And what we found was this: of the 40 Finnish idioms referring to insects and eating, feeding and food, 20 contained predominantly negative, 9 neutral, and 7 positive information. When we looked at insect idioms generally and not primarily related to food, the large number of idioms with references to lice, fleas and bedbugs was striking. Unsurprisingly, they were overwhelmingly negative, but the few with some positive and encouraging meanings were interesting like, for example, to be as tough as a louse or that something is as safe as a louse in a furcoat or that someone is so kind that s/he wouldn’t even hurt a flea. Idioms referring to beetles, especially dung beetles, often contain some advice like “if you follow a dung beetle, you’ll end up in the dung” or “a dung beetle does not complain that shit is bad”. Comparisons with cockroaches can be found in idioms like “I’m freezing like a cockroach in the snow” or “someone is as greedy as a cockroach” or “as shy as a cockroach”.

An almost philosophical meaning can be assigned to “perhonen unohdat pian, että askel oli vain kaalimato” (the butterfly forgets easily that it was only a cabbage worm) and to the saying that fighting for a lost cause is like an ant trying to stop a train.It is interesting to note the Finnish pessimism in “ei sääsken laula taivaaseen kuulu” (the singing of a mosquito is not heard in heaven), but the Japanese optimism in 蟻の思いも天に届く(ari no omoi mo tenni todoku = even an ant’s wish reaches heaven). On the other hand, there is some sarcasm in the Finnish expression “siinä on lissää sano hyttynen, kun mereen pissi” (have some more, said the mosquito and pissed in the ocean). However, there is also the realization that “every little bit helps”, namely “apu hyttysen kin apu on” (even a mosquito’s help is help). Rather sad sentiments are expressed in the sayings that also a poor man will have friends when in the summer the flies are coming and that a poor child gets hungry as soon as it sees a fly flying over the house. Idioms referring to bees are not common in Finnish, because they have come to Finland only about 250 years ago, but idioms exist with references to bumblebees as messengers welcoming the spring crop and to wasps when too big a hurry has been demanded from someone.

Spiders are not insects, but their reputation is generally even worse than that of insects; psychiatrists even have to deal with cases of arachnophobia, but the few idioms and sayings in the Finnish language are not necessarily negative as the references to the strength of the spider’s web or the spider’s courage demonstrate. Farmers noticed “kun lukinverkko rupeaa näkymään, on paras kylvöaika ohralle ja rukiille” (when the spiders’ webs are seen, it’s the best time to sow barley and rye). What these and other examples show is that idioms and sayings do reflect the attitude that residents have towards the insects and spiders they come in touch with and that the frequent use of such sayings can influence a person’s opinion. It is noticeable that urban residents make fewer use of insect-containing idioms than rural folk and to collect such idioms and sayings before they totally disappear we had better not listen to “hätä ei auta, kun kirpun kiinniotos” (haste won’t help unless you are catching fleas), but start straightaway.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
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