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Learning the Insect Lingo While Working Abroad

sommerfugl (butterfly)

An American entomologist in Denmark, Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE, has been busy learning insect common names in the local lexicon, with sometimes surprising or amusing translations between the differently styled Danish and English languages, she writes. One example illustrated here: In Danish, butterflies are summerfugl, which translates “summer birds” in English. (Photo by Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE)

By Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE

Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE

Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE

I moved to Denmark in September 2019 to pursue a postdoctoral position at the University of Copenhagen. The country is committed to leading the digital agriculture revolution and I received a fellowship to push this work forward. Prior to moving, I had a few ideas about what my time might be like. Denmark is renowned for its Viking roots and proximity to water. From a prior research stay, I knew that the agriculture is pig-focused and that the culture tends towards the literal.

I did not know, however, that Danish itself is a literal language. For example, Duolingo translates spider as edderkop, which literally means “poison cup”! Nouns typically are stacked-together descriptors of the object in question. This structure makes reading Danish more accessible than English, which has more than double the number of words.

The literal naming tendency is quite helpful for some insects. A weevil’s common Danish name is snudebille, literally meaning “snout beetle,” a riff on the distinctive snout that occurs in many species in superfamily Curculionoidae. Danish descriptors are often added, like for the red palm weevil: røde snudebille (“red snout beetle”). You can see how the structure facilitates understanding.

The trouble starts when the language reuses these stacked descriptors. When translating research on the pollen beetle Meligethes aeneus, I came to learn that glimmerbøsse translates to “glitter gay,” “sparkle gun,” and “glimmer cigarette.” This made for an animated reading of the work. It turns out, “glitter box” was the intended meaning.

The inventors of the Danish language certainly defined from the known. Crickets are fårekylling (“danger chickens”1). Butterflies are summerfugl (“summer birds”). And ladybugs are Mariehøne (the name Marie plus “hen”).

Describing animals by their domesticated counterparts is not limited to insects. Somehow both porpoise and guinea pig Danish names are marsvin, translating roughly to “sea pig.” Likewise, porcupines and hedgehogs are both pindsvin—”stick pigs.” Given the swine-farming dominance, a colleague once noted his surprise that all insects were not called “flutter pigs.” Coincidentally flagersvin (flutter pig) Google translates as the word for bats2 (though this might just be the Google algorithm projecting). It does not take too much imagination to see the Viking roots in the name skildpadde (“shield reptile”) for turtles and tortoises.

As a postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, I have noticed language is a great informer of the Danish culture. Once, I found myself in a research group meeting discussing insects named after celebrities (such as Beyoncé’s bootylicious fly namesake, Scaptia beyonceae). This naming tendency might say something about the bravado of native English speakers. Dr. Lene Sigsgaard was quick to note, “We are not that fun”; she had recently given the strawberry aphid (Chaetosiphon fragaefolii) the Danish common name jordbærbladlus, which directly translates to, well, “strawberry aphid.” Sigsgaard serves as the chair of the taxonomic naming committee for the Danish Society for Plant Diseases and Pests.

Meanwhile, English has words that sound similar but are defined differently, like “flee” and “flea.” The cultural misunderstandings from this confusion extend to the other Nordic citizens as well. A Swedish colleague who worked on Psylliodes chrysocephala, sometimes known as cabbage-stem flea beetles, came to the sudden understanding that these beetles were not defined by their “fleeing” from him as he walked through a field. As he had only ever heard the common name spoken, he did not connect the English description to their flea-like jumping behavior.

Working as an entomologist in Denmark has given me a greater understanding of language’s effect on entomological perceptions—as well as a strong appreciation of binomial nomenclature.

Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen. She received three entomology degrees from Cornell University (B.S.) and the University of California, Davis (M.S. and Ph.D.). Additionally, she is a Board Certified Entomologist, holds two Linnaean Games team championships, and is a tad disappointed that living in Demark hinders her ability to attend entomology-adjacent theater. Web: www.bicklab.com. Twitter: @bick_emily. Email: enb45@cornell.edu.

Bick thanks colleagues Salena Helmreich, Laurence Still, Alfred Strand, and Dr. Lene Sigsgaard for inspiration.

1 Modern Danish translates fårekylling directly to “sheep chicken.” However, historically this word was spelled farekylling, in which fare means “danger.” This definition was created based on the warning crickets give when they cease chirping at night.

2 The Danish true word for bat is flagermus—”flutter mouse.”

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