Why do "etymology" and "entomology" sound so similar? Aren't they different words? How are bugs related to words?
You may have noticed the rather odd fact that “etymology” and “entomology” sound oddly similar. Well, there’s actually a very good reason for this. See, they used to be the exact same thing!
For hundreds of years, both professions were one and the same, that of entyomology. Entyomology was a niche but important study, that of both speech and spiders. Such experts would learn about both ants and antecedents, about both comments and the common bag moth, about gnats and silent letters.
This may seem odd to some, but that is only because of the circumstances of modern life’s specialization in labor and loose grammatical protocols. Back in the day, men did not have such liberties. People had to work multiple complex jobs just to survive, and the only universal way of communicating was by associating each word with a local insect.
Insects may seem an odd choice, but they were chosen for their great abundance and great variety. With roughly 1.3 million types of insects in existence, insects are more than twice as numerous as all other animals on earth combined…and then doubled!1 Such massive numbers of bugs were a natural choice for unifying language in the wake of the mergers of the Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman cultures of the early middle ages. Today, the world’s largest English dictionary—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged—has roughly 470,000 words, which far eclipses any other way to reference them besides insects.2
Sadly, by the start of the 20th century, the fields would irreparably diverge. Industrialization had brought a new-found wealth to the people of the English-speaking world, and with it, people could afford to fund the sciences enough to no longer require the former bi-vocationalism.
Most importantly however, the insects themselves diverged. The entyomology bug had lost significant portions of its genetic diversity in different ways in its two main clusters. After leading entyomologists officially determined that they had indeed become separate species, the group tearfully named one group of the creatures etymology bugs and the other entomology bugs. They then resigned from their positions and formally split the field in twain, fascinating etiologists.
Since then, both fields have diverged significantly. Modern language has since hugely changed unfettered by the restrictions of naming every word after a bug. However, this also led to a growing disregard of insects. After the scuttlebutt was no longer restrained by the scuttlebug, the scuttlebug eventually went extinct. Once common insects that teemed everywhere are now rarely even recorded to have existed. Even today, 40% of all insect species are still in decline, and one-third are now endangered.3 In the 1700s, people would usually have several thousand types of bugs in their homes to reference for different words; now, the average people only has 579.4
Now few remnants of the past seem to remain as Old English words have fallen out of use and the bugs have gone extinct. However some examples can still be seen in words such as flee (named after the historical fleæ), be, fly, might, butter (named after the still-common butterfly, although some subspecies like the peanutbutterfly are sadly no more), vegetable (bug), house (spider), dragon(fly), owl (moth), sand(fly), praying (mantis), stick (insects), and many more.
However, if entyomology is your passion, don’t let the past discourage you! We live in an unprecedented age of opportunity! Go get a couple Master’s degrees, maybe a PhD, and follow your dreams! Learn resurrection biology and bring back the entyomology bug! Relegitmize your profession! You can fulfill your dreams and learn how both spiders and men spin their webs of lies.
Chapman, A. D. “Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World.” 2nd ed. Department of the Environment and Energy (2009), 60. http://www.environment.gov.au/science/abrs/publications/other/numbers-living-species/contents. ↩
“How Many Words Are There in English?” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/help/faq-how-many-english-words. ↩
Murawski, Darlyne A., Karine Aigner, and Karin Rothman. “Why Insect Populations Are Plummeting-and Why It Matters.” National Geographic, February 14, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/why-insect-populations-are-plummeting-and-why-it-matters/. ↩
Loria, Kevin. “There Are Hundreds of Bugs in the Average American Home.” Business Insider, January 19, 2016. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-bugs-arthropods-in-a-house-2016-1. ↩
The two words sounding similar is coincidence. They both have “-ology” because that’s what English does to refer to the study of words. Why? Because that’s what French does. Why? Because that’s what Ancient Greek did with its “-λογία.” “Etymology” is from the Greek word “ἔτυμον,” meaning something like “the true sense of a word;” while “entomology” is from the Greek word “ἔτυμον.”
Scientists (historically called natural philosophers until the late 1800s) were more well-rounded in the past, but it was more like studying all types of animals instead of just bag moths, not like studying insects and linguistics.
The Norman invasion succeeded in 1066, hundreds of years after the Angle-Saxons settled England in 500s and 600s. The Danes also just ruled England for, like, 29 years. I don’t think that actually had a large influx of Danish people or a substantial effect on English.
On average, people do seem to have around 579 species of bugs in their homes, but it’ll depend on where you live, many of them just pass through, and many are very small. Also, I doubt it was notably higher in the past.
The bugs in the list were named after the objects, not the other way around.