English

Locust

Marina Borges / 11 de março de 2013

I did not know the word “locust” till last year, please forgive me.

When I had a class assignment to find out its translation into Portuguese, the first source I checked was Merriam-Webster (on its beautiful and free iPhone app). I was intrigued by definition number 2, “cicada”. Well, in my hometown, Brasilia, cicadas start singing as soon as the rainy season starts, anyone who’s lived there for over a year is an expert to state the kind of plague they are. Wonderful, that was precisely the context I was going for, locust = cicada = cigarra.

The only thing was – the locust plague looked much more like a grasshopper one (gafanhoto). Indeed, the eighth plague of Ancient Egypt was the locust plague. Merriam-Webster, could you be wrong?

Well, sort of.

According to Penn State, indeed locust and cicada are synonymous – and once again we see history and general culture contributing for language development:

Early American colonists had never seen periodical cicadas. They were familiar with the biblical story of locust plagues in Egypt and Palestine, but were not sure what kind of insect was being described. When the cicadas appeared by the millions, some of these early colonists thought a “locust plague” had come upon them.

The confusion between cicadas and locusts exists today in that cicadas are commonly called locusts.

Now, Merriam-Webster staff, maybe you could explain all that in an unabridged dictionary so we did not make fools of ourselves in class, do we have a deal? Thank you.

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