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ants

 

In its entry on ant, the austere Oxford English Dictionary, after a blunt definition of the insect, permits itself a rare outburst of enthusiasm:

There are several genera and many species, exhibiting in their various habits and economy some of the most remarkable phenomena of the insect world.

This was written in the late 1800s and still remains true. Books such as The Journey to the Ants reveal complex worlds more alien and bizarre than any found in science fiction (and they're just outside your back door!).

The Old English word for ant was aemete which meant a "biter-off". Sometime in the 1300s, this word acquired a "p" to become the Middle English ampte. Over time, much as accompte lost its "p" to become account, ampte turned into our modern word ant. In some dialects an "ant" is still called an emmet, though. 

There are many English words for "ant" but the most obscure must be calicrat. This poetic term alludes to Callicrates, a Greek artist who, according to Pliny, carved ants and other small animals in ivory. 

Some words sound a lot worse than their real meaning. The splendid word pismire and its synonym piss-ant sound more dire than they are. Both words simply mean "wood-ant" though admittedly their first parts are from piss, "urine". Apparently wood-ant nests are not just smelly; they are quite specifically smelly. The mire in pismire is yet another English word for "ant". Its roots are very ancient and it is a distant relative of the Greek myrmex, "ant". Myrmex is the source of myrmecology ("the study of ants") and of myrmecoleon, a fierce yet tiny predator, also known as the "ant-lion".

It is believed that early Latin had an equivalent of myrmex which was something like mormica but, for reasons known only to the ancient Romans, they decided to pronounce it formica. This Latin word for "ant" is responsible for formic acid (which is what stings when they bite) and for formication, the medical term for an abnormal sensation that ants are crawling over one's skin. Now there's another word likely to cause a few double-takes.  Try dropping it into casual conversation at work sometime.

The Latin formica is unrelated to that stuff on your kitchen counter-top, though.  That durable resin material was devised in 1913 as an electrical insulator. It was intended as replacement for mica, another insulator of the time. Hence the name.*

We must break off here as regiments of ants are massing on the borders of our patio. They say our weapons of mass insecticide represent a threat to them, especially given our record of planting flowers in their ancestral homeland. Personally, we suspect that they're after our strategic reserves of honey and marmalade.

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* Thanks to reader Clint Jurgens for this update.

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