The Voice of the Cicada
The American history teacher
This article was suggested to the author by an article in Readers Digest on the cicada in which it was stated that the locust-cicada confusion may be dated from the Pilgrims. Here an earlier date is suggested, and some evidence is given that nonentomological translators have added to the confusion. The oldest story in the classification of plants and animals is the confusion of names. One organism may have several names; the Red Trillium is also known as Wake-Robin, Squawroot, and Stinking
... , and Stinking Benjamin. Even more confusing is the occasional appending of one name to more than one organism; this is the problem with the cicada, or seventeen-year locust, and the grasshopper, often called locust. And this confusion has been going on for nearly 2000 years. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) appears to have separated the cicada and the locust successfully. Of the cicada he wrote that it had no mouth but rather a mouth-and-tongue, which it used for sucking up its food, the moisture dew. He described the leaping legs of locusts quite adequately. In The Georgics of Virgil (70-19 B.C.) the Latin word cicada has been variously translated as grasshopper, cricket, and cicada. One may, in some cases, make an issue out of the translation, but for the most part there is little to choose, entomologically speaking. The most striking early writing where this question arises is the Natutral History of Pliny. In one passage about the cicada he writes (Book XI, xxxii): "They mate while backwards (This has been translated by H. Rackham as "They couple lying on their backs." The Latin is "coitus supinus." Loeb Classical Library, Pliny, Natural History Books VIII-XI, 1956). A pointed roughness is on the back, with which they dig a place in the ground for their young." The oviposition habit described here suggests that of grasshoppers. Yet later on (xxxv) Pliny writes of the locust's ("locusta") mating in a manner that seems to refer to the insect we call a grasshopper.