From a recent news item -
“Since October 2006, 35 per cent or more of the United States ' population of the Western honey bee ( Apis mellifera ) - billions of individual bees - simply flew from their hive homes and disappeared.”
Does this spring’s frightening, widespread and so far mysterious die-off of the honeybee vault the little pollinator into new admonitory status?
Is the honeybee this year’s canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a toxic incubus perching gently on humanity’s bedpost and gazing down upon our innocently sleeping forms with a soft smile, much as a fed eagle might perch upon a treetop, plump and content, its beak smelling pleasantly of field mice.
More than one third of the healthy natural foods humans eat, fruits and vegetables, depend on bees for pollination. Our honeybees' alarming disappearance bids us indulge an interval of concerned browsing and a few moments' buzz around bee words of the world, collecting some of the piquant stories about bee vocabulary. This is by no means a thorough etymology of the word bee, but rather a page scribbled in a word-nut’s notebook.
Our English word bee has many Germanic and Slavic cognates and relatives.
Old English béo
Old Norse bý
Modern German Biene
Old Teutonic *bini
Old Church Slavonic bŭčela
Words for ‘bee’ and ‘honey’ of Indo-European origin occur in most Finno-Ugrian languages (e.g. Hungarian méh and méz), although some scholars (often Hungarian) suggest that Indo-European may have borrowed the me* roots from the Finno-Ugrian language family.
Here is the word for bee in several other languages of the world.
Note that the Greeks named the honey bee melissa, after its honey (Greek meli). The Jews named the bee דבורה (pronounced in modern Hebrew de-vo-RAH) after its sting. Deborah is a common Hebrew feminine name. Deborah means ‘stinging bee.’ The Semitic root is dbr, one of whose reflexes is dabar, a Hebrew word for ‘word, sting, goad.’ Compare Arabic and Proto-Semitic dabar(a) ‘sting, ox goad.’
An interesting but utterly coincidental similarity exists in the Hebrew and Latin terms for ‘word.’ In Latin it’s verbum (the Latin root verb- ‘whip, lash, sting, cattle goad.’ In Biblical Hebrew, word is dabar from the triliteral verbal root dbr - ‘say, speak, prod, sting, goad.’
Hebrew scholars offer other possible Semitic origins of devorah,the modern Hebrew word for bee. They consider ancient cognates like the Aramaic for bee, debarta, and its Syriac cousin, deboritha, as well as the Hebrew word for honey, debash. There is another shoresh (three-letter word root) brought forth for consideration: the Mandaic Aramaic dibra 'back, tail, hence 'bee's stinger' (?) to be compared with the Arabic dubr 'backside, tail.'
Arty Bees Dare to Sting Cupid
Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey
Lucas Cranach, 1531 CE , oil on wood
Museo Galleria Borghese, Rome
Isle of Honey?
Is the Greek word for honey hidden in a well-known Mediterranean place name? The island of Malta, say some sources, was first Melita ‘land of honey’ (Greek meli, melitos ‘honey’). But the preponderance of linguistic and historical evidence suggests that the place name Malta is Phoenician, the Semitic language of the Mediterranean trading people who colonized the six little islands which comprise Malta very early in history. The Semitic triliteral root mtl carries the meaning of ‘take refuge’ or ‘hide.’ The Semitic verb form malata can mean ‘one takes refuge.’ Therefore it is quite likely that a later noun form ‘malta’ may mean ‘place of refuge’ or ‘isle of refuge.’ If you examine the sea map and observe Malta’s position south of Sicily, not too far from Tunisia, and think from the perspective of Phoenician traders sailing stout and yare vessels to and fro upon the Mediterranean, such an origin makes good sailing sense and good linguistic sense.
or Medved, a Honey of a Russian Name
The common Russian surname Medved is an apotropaic circumlocution for ‘bear’ meaning literally ‘honey-eater.’ This is an old Slavonic periphrasis for bear. Med is Russian for honey, and the ved root means 'eat.' The ved and yed roots are related to eсть [yest'] (Russian ‘to eat’) and are cognate with other Indo-European verbs like Latin edere to eat’ (which gives us the adjective edible) and even with English to eat. Another Russian word containing this Slavic root is the interesting and racist Samoyed, the name of a people and a breed of dog. Samo-yed means 'self-eater' in Russian, a synonym for cannibal! The Samoyed people do not call themselves by that name. They possess their own proper ethnonym, and it does not mean ‘cannibal.’ Inuit is an ethnonym; Eskimo is not.
In order to keep bears away and/or to placate the spirit of the totemic animal of his ‘bear’ clan, the tribesman never uttered the name of the animal, for fear that if one spoke aloud the word bear, then the animal itself might appear to devour one. For the same reason, the word mother-in-law is seldom said aloud in North America. Among many peoples of the world the imposition of taboo on certain words is still a prevalent superstition.
How did one avoid saying the word ‘bear’ out loud? One made up other names for the animal, and one old Slavic circumlocution was honey-eater or medved. A almost similar type of periphrasis occurs in the monument poem of Old English, Beowulf. The hero Beowulf has a name that means ‘bee-wolf.’ That was a synonym, an Anglo-Saxon kenning for ‘bear.’ It was probably not because the word bear became taboo. Kenning was a feature common in Old English poetry. It added flavour and verbal brio and memorable word formation to the poetry, very much like the compound Homeric epithets of The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example Homer's reference to “the wine-dark sea” or to “rosy-fingered dawn.” Both are Homeric epithets. Such poetic figures are also mnemonic devices. All these long poems were recited by a bard. Standard epithets and kennings, all with proper metrics, allow the reciting bard some help and allow the audience the pleasure of recognizing familiar tropes.
Other examples from the poem Beowulf are kennings, or poetically phrased synonyns, for the word sea. Compounds that meant ‘sea’ include seġl-rād ‘sail-road’, swan-rād ‘swan-road’, bæþ-weġ ‘bath-way’ or hwæl-weġ ‘whale-way’ and hronrāde ‘whale-road’.
Curious & Meaningless Trivia
The Pig Latin for bee is eebay.
The Buzz on Bee Buzz Words
Arabic ( Algeria ): bezzzz
Danish: bzzz / summ summ
German: summ summ
Hebrew: bzzz (/zum zum zum)
Korean: boong-boong (/wing-wing)
Portuguese ( Brazil ): bzzzz
Spanish ( Spain ): bzzz
Spanish ( Argentina ): bzzzz
Swedish: bzz bzz (/ surr surr)
Turkish vzzzz, vzz
St. Ambrose of Milan, Patron Saint of Beekeepers
Known as “the honey-tongued doctor,” Saint Ambrose is often painted in episcopal vestments wearing a mitre with crozier in hand, while nearby sits his most frequent iconic symbol, the beehive. One delightfully spurious explanation of Saint Ambrose’s connection with bees recounts how bees deposited the honey of theological knowledge on his lips while he slept in his cradle, thus explaining his later “natural” religious eloquence.
As usual with popular excuse-making, there is no suggestion that his eloquence was the outcome of many years of rhetorical practice and learning. Thus are the illiterate hoi polloi forever spared from the possibly upsetting insight that their profound ignorance is the direct result of their profound laziness and ploppish do-nothingism. “Like, why should I study when I can nab my welfare check and smoke some primo crack?”
Source of Apis, the Classical Latin Word for Bee
The word for bee in the Romance languages stems from Latin apis ‘bee.’ French abeille, Spanish abeja, Italian ape — all descend from Roman buzzers. So do words like apiary and apiculture. This little note concerns the ultimate source of apis. Some scholars suggest that the Latin root and even the Germanic words for bee like German Biene entered Indo-European languages from ancient Egyptian. One of the Egyptian hieroglyphic words for honeybee is bj-t. Here are a couple of technical jottings on that hypothesis from linguistic journal articles:
“He explains the L. apis 'bee' after Brunner (1969) from Ancient Eg. as reduced form /af/ from /?fj/ (pp. 713-14, 723, 727) and IE root +bi- or *bhi- by a different Ancient Eg. form /bj-t/ 'honey bee'.
PE *ap- (?.): Latin apis "bee" < SH *`a[p/f]- "bee, fly" (in Egyptian, South Cushitic).</DT?”
Origin of folk saying “She is the bee’s knees”
(extract from the Guardian’s Notes and Queries site, article by Dave Todd)
“The expression was coined in the 1920s by an American cartoonist named Tad Dorgan, who also graced the language with such corny superlatives as “the cat’s pajamas” and less durable ones such as the “the flea’s eyebrows” and - a real clunker - “the canary’s tusks.” Dorgan also came up with: “Yes, we have no bananas.” I’ve long been puzzled why, to this day, the bee’s knees expression has maintained a certain currency in Britain, something it has not had for decades in the United States. The thought occurs that perhaps, more than half a century on, it’s a still lingering cultural artifact from the American occupation of the south of England in the lead-up to D-Day.”
Sundry Bee Words
Apitherapy is the pseudo-medical use of honeybee products. Almost none of the claims of apitherapy have been proved scientifically. Apitherapy includes the true beelievers who rub queen-bee “royal jelly” on their body parts while murmuring “Heal! Buzz! Buzz! Heal! ”
(kleptes Greek ‘thief’ + parasite)
Internet note: “Cleptoparasitic bees, commonly called "cuckoo bees" because their behavior is similar to cuckoo birds, occur in several bee families. Females of these bees lack pollen collecting structures and do not construct their own nests. They typically enter the nests of pollen collecting species, and lay their eggs in cells provisioned by the host bee. When the cuckoo bee larva hatches, it consumes the host larva's pollen ball, and if the female cleptoparasite has not already done so, kills and eats the host larva. In a few cases, where the hosts are social species, the cleptoparasite remains in the host nest and lays many eggs, sometimes even killing the host queen and replacing her.”
“Bees may be solitary or may live in various types of communities. The most advanced of these are eusocial colonies found among the honey bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees. Sociality, of several different types, is believed to have evolved separately many times within the bees.”
Here’s a word brought into English by Viking invaders speaking Old Norse. Skeppa was a Viking word for basket or bushel. By 1100 CE, in early Middle English, skep meant a basket-shaped beehive made of rope or bound twigs or straw.
Here are two skeps, rustic beehives made of dried and bound grapevines.
After so belaboured a column, I’m sure some readers would like me to buzz off, and so I shall.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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Reviews of my Book
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A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos. )
Jenni French of San Fancisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word esssays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my new book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
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