Dumbledores, Dows’y Polls, and Pitchy-paws: Insects in the DNE

A bumble bee resting on a sunflower

A dumbledore on a sunflower. Photo courtesy of Phillip Cairns.

Virtually limitless in colour, shape, and behaviour, insects are more diverse and numerous than any other animal group on the planet. They’ve also been here far longer than most, with fossils dating back to 400 million years ago. Before humans, before even the dinosaurs, there were insects. Time has treated them well – experts peg their numbers at around 10 quintillion (that’s one 10 followed by 18 zeroes), and say they inhabit almost every environment on Earth, perfectly evolved to exploit the plant and other resources nature provides. Some evolutionary biologists call our modern era “the age of the insect.”

Summer is certainly the season of the insect. Winter now over, they’re emerging from eggs, cocoons, nests, and burrows to snack on leaves and nectar. They’re pollinating newly opened flowers and felling lettuce sprouts like trees. Since childhood, insects have inspired in us a whole range of reactions, from fascination to fear; this is reflected in our regional vocabularies.

A familiar insect is the bumble bee, known as a dumbledore, busywop, or busy bee in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The first term is not unique to the province and appears to have originated in southwest England. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dumbledore as ‘a humble-bee or bumble-bee’ and its earliest documented use of the word is from 1787. It was likely brought here by English settlers in the 18th or 19th centuries.

A word-file for dumbledore from the DNE Collection.

Dumbledore word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Busy bee is a widespread term, but busywop may be unique to Newfoundland and Labrador. It was likely derived from wop, a word form of wasp in both the OED and English Dialect Dictionary. Like dumbledore, wop is of English origin; neither word is used very much in Newfoundland and Labrador today.

Bees are prolific pollinators and their close relationship with flowers is noted in our language. One example is the bumblebee flower, otherwise known as the dandelion. The term, however, is no longer in widespread use and the only evidence that exists for it in the DNE and its lexical files comes from oral evidence collected in the 1960s and 70s.

A word-file for bumble bee flower from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Another common pollinator that enters our gardens and therefore our vocabulary is the butterfly, or pitchy-paw according to the DNE. The word appears to be unique to the province, although the English Dialect Dictionary reports in its entry for pitch v¹ 2 (5) that pitch, butterfly, from southwest England, is ‘an invocation by which children hope to catch a butterfly’. Also of English origin is pitch-poll, which the EDD defines as ‘to turn head over heels’.

A word-file for pitchie paw from the DNE Collection.

A word-file for pitchie paw (also spelled pitchy-paw) from the DNE Collection. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Moths fly under a few names in the DNE, including lamp-lighter, Johnny Miller, and dows’y poll.  All three appear to have originated in England and were likely brought here by settlers in the 18th or 19th centuries. Dows’y poll may be a variation of dusty poll or dowsty poll, which the EDD defines as ‘a head covered with flour’, and provides the following quotation, from Devon, England: “Miller, O miller, O dowsty poll! How minny zacks hast thee a-stawl?”

A word-file for dows'y poll from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Another insect name that appears to have migrated here from southwest England is God’s cow: a lady bug. As the following word-file suggests, some people here once believed the small spotted beetle could cure toothaches.

A word-file for God's cow from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Not all words investigated by the DNE’s editors made it into the dictionary. An example is emmett (also spelled emmit), an ancient synonym of ‘ant’. The EDD reports that this word is in general dialect use in Scotland, Ireland, and England, and the earliest evidence that exists for it in the OED dates back to the ninth century (ca. 850). The DNE’s editors believed the word was too well-attested in other dictionaries to include it in theirs.

A word-file for emmit from the DNE Collection.

“Don't tread in the emmits' nest. Explanation - ant - there is several varieties. ( small black "emmits", large black ones, small red emmits and large red emmits and large black flying emmits and large red flying emmits)” Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Spiders and carpenters belong to the animal classes Arachnida and Malacostraca, respectively, and are therefore not insects. Taxonomic taboos aside, they certainly belong to the broader phylum of creepy crawlies and can be discussed here.

Carpenter is a well-known synonym for the wood louse. The earliest reference in the OED is from an 1883 edition of the British periodical Knowledge: An Illustrated Magazine of Science. A pronunciation and word-form that may be unique to the province is cafner. Boat-builder is another synonym; it is still used today, but is not as widespread as carpenter.

A word-file for cafner from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

A word-file for Boat-builders from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Traveller is a general word for ‘spider’ that appears in the DNE and may be unique to the province. The OED contains several different senses of traveller, but none refers to spiders; the same is true of the EDD. The term appears to be fairly obscure in Newfoundland; the word-files contain only a single reference to this sense of traveller, taken from an interview recorded in 1964.

A word-file for traveller from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Rain spider is a more well-known term and Googling it produces many results from around the world. There are seven word-files for rain spider in the DNE Collection, all of which record oral evidence collected from seven different communities in the 1970s. The dictionary defines it as a ‘type of spider which, if killed by a person, is thought to cause it to rain or otherwise bring misfortune.’ Another name is the bottle-arse spider.

A word-file for rain spider from the DNE Collection.

Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Considering the chronic damp of the Newfoundland and Labrador spring and early summer, it may be in all our interests to treat these creatures well whenever we find them in our homes and gardens.

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