Monday, July 03, 2006

Today's Word: Formication

Formication -- spell it carefully, now! -- is an "abnormal sense of ants crawling over one's skin." It's from Latin formica, meaning "ant," and no relation to Formica kitchen countertops.

Remember a while back when I was marveling at how scientists measure the size of ants' heads? Well, here's an even more mind-blowing story. Seems a German team has discovered that ants find their way back to their nests across long distances by somehow counting their steps. The scientists discovered the apparent existence of these "internal pedometers" with two experiments: They either cut off the tips of ant legs (in which case the ants walked the same number of steps back to the nest, and thus came up short), or they fashioned little anty "stilts" for them out of pig hair bristles (in which case, the ants, walking the same number of steps, overshot their nest).

If I hadn't already read all that business about ant-head measurments, I might have taken all this with at least an ant-sized grain of salt. And there's video of the little things on stilts accompanying an article in New Scientist, as well as an audio report on NPR.

Fascinating to learn about this, of course. But I have to say, as far as I'm concerned, the whole thing is giving me a bad case of formication.


Anonymous janet said...

I worked in the field of entomology for a number of years yet I find this research you mention amazing!
Equally amazing is how the switching of one single letter in a word can infer a whole new sensation, eh?
Martha, I listen to your Public Radio show A Way With Words every Sunday morning here in rural Wisconsin. I extoll the virtues of the KPBS's website audio archives to every language lover I meet. Keep up the great work.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Hi, Janet - Great to hear from you!

And yes about that single letter, whether it's etymology/entomology, formi/fornication, or slaughter/laughter.

I'm still blown away by that kind of experimentation on ants. Did you have experience with anything similar, Janet?

In any case, thanks for stopping by and for spreading the good word about AWWW!

Hey -- speaking of insects, have you ever heard lightning bugs called any other name in Wisconsin? There's a odd regionalism I'm very curious about, and apparently Wisconsin's one of the few places it appears.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

I worked with gypsy moths in the lab, raising the larvae and then trying to figure out natural ways to kill them using pathogens, parasites, and predators. The most exotic research I experienced required a daily tromp through knee-high stinging nettles in summer while checking live traps for a predatory beetles.

As for your lightning bug query, firefly or glow worm are the other words I can think of, though I personally never hear the latter. Of course, technically they are really not bugs, flies, nor worms, but rather, beetles, in the phylogenetic Order Coleoptera.

Order matters in biology just as much as in spelling!

11:37 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

Oh, and here's something I only heard after I moved to the Ocooch Mountains here in SW Wisconsin: chimbley. The majority of settlers were Norwegians, but I think the few Irish settlers were responsible for that one.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous janet said...

Not to belabor the one-letter issue but...
I just ran across a priceless instance where one letter in a word makes all the difference in the world. You can read about the extremely rare variety :-) of Catahoula Leopard Dog by going to this Wikipedia link and scrolling about 1/3 down the page.

Hee hee...

(Note: sometimes the photo does not come up properly; if this is the case you may need to grab the photo icon, copy it, and then view it. The picture accompanying the article absolutely must be seen to appreciate this variety of dog)

6:49 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

LOL re dogs in tights, Janet!

And just wondered if you'd ever heard "peenie wallie" for lightning bug/firefly. Seems rare, but I have seen it around.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

"Peenie wallie" ... sounds like something you wouldn't want to say in mixed company. Nope, never heard it, nor did the elderly folk with whom I picnicked yesterday.
However they did tell me of another Wisconsin word for drinking fountain: "bubbler". Not a terribly exciting or unique word, but us Iowans and Illinoians had never heard it before coming here.

11:32 AM  

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