05 August 2014

Le Mot Juste

In the title of the preceding blog I mentioned the “word” zyzzyva. If you check it up, you will learn that it refers to a genus of weevil  from South America. Zyzzyva is its official “Latin” name. Of course only professionals who study neotropical beetles for a living have any real reason to talk about zyzzyvas from time to time. The name doesn’t even seem to have a real etymology. The entomologist who named the tiny thing probably did so with jocular intent: he wanted to make sure that the name would be the last one on any alphabetic list of insects. One accidental side-effect of his practical joke was that it made Zyzzyva  far more prominent than its entomological status would warrant. I’m sure I would never have heard of it if its name began with F, or R, or even Za… rather than Zy….

Zyzzyva belongs to Curculionidae, a family with some 50,000 species grouped into more than 4,600 genera. These numbers may seem large, but they refer only to taxonomic units described and named so far; the actual diversity of the family must be much, much greater. Non-specialists, however, have (at best) only the faintest idea of what a weevil is, what it may look like, and how it differs from other “bugs”; they wouldn’t be able to recognise a particular genus or species if their life depended on it. Very few people have ever seen a zyzzyva. I haven’t been able to find an image of one, using Google. A photograph widely circulated on the nets and purported to feature a zyzzyva (see below) in fact shows a different weevil, not even from the same family.

Do not trust Google blindly.

The case of zyzzyva is instructive because it shows how a word-like entity can spread quite virally and remain in circulation despite having practically no communicative function. The only reason why people might want to use it is its curiosity value. It looks improbable in an amusing way, and one may like the sound of it. The fact that it refers to a real animal is quite irrelevant.

My God ‒ Rogets Thesaurus!
(by Ronald Searle)
The vocabulary we really need for effective communication is quite simple in comparison with the complexity of the world around us. We have words for a few hundred core concepts and for several thousand peripheral ones. A well-educated person’s active vocabulary contains fewer words than there are species of weevil. Nevertheless, we manage to make ourselves understood, and even to add stylistic nuances to plain communication (as when we decide, perhaps after consulting Roget’s Thesaurus, that something was “calamitous” rather than merely “disastrous”). In terms of brain organisation, memory is cheap, but not so cheap that we should want to have a separate word for every possible category of object, every imaginable shape or colour, and every kind of activity. It’s good to be precise, but not at any cost. After all, if there is no single word to convey exactly what we want to express, we can resort to combinations of words (“three hundred and seventy-one”) or circumlocutions (“those little things with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment”). Different cultures have very different priorities when it comes to naming things. The appearance of a new kind of object may inspire lexical innovation (the coining of a new word) or semantic change (adding a new meaning to an already existing word), but words may also become forgotten when they are no longer needed to transmit culturally important meanings. I will discuss some characteristic examples next time.


  1. Boll weevils (Anthonomus grandis), at least, are quite familiar to anyone who's done farm labor on a cotton plantation, or who has seen the monument erected by the grateful citizens of Enterprise, Alabama, who wished to acknowledge the weevil for its role in getting them out of cotton monoculture and into mixed farming and light manufacturing. See the top of the statue in the picture.

    It's said that this particular weevil had a nest brother who did not become famous: in fact, he did little or nothing during his short life. He was commonly known as the lesser of two weevils.

  2. It seems to me that Old English wifel had a more general meaning (roughly = 'beetle'), but by the 15th century it came to mean more specifically the wheat weevil Sitophilus granarius (spelt wevel, wyvyl vel sim., a.k.a. malte bowde). It was a particularly evil weevil, since its larvae could destroy large quantities of barley stored in granaries, with dire consequences (no barley --> no malt --> no beer --> no fun).