Sunday, April 27, 2014

Suburban Pests & Biblical Plagues: An Army of Caterpillars

An Army of Caterpillars (work of Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 3.0 Unported licensor Gladson Machado
The Hebrew prophet Joel, three or four centuries before the common era, attributes these words to God, and reckons the cankerworm and the palmerworm, caterpillars all, a veritable army of the Lord:

And I will restore to you 
the years that the locust hath eaten,
the cankerworm, the caterpillar, and the palmerworm,
my great army which I sent among you. 

Joel 2:25 (KJV). The Hebrew for "caterpillar" in the original text, chasil (חָסִיל), from a root meaning to devour or consume, is obscure and might variously refer to the locust, grasshopper or caterpillar.  Regards, Joel sees these "creeping things" as a manifestation of God's judgment and a call to repentance. When the same fate befalls the Puritans in the Old Bay Colony, their own preachers too allege insufficient piety and argue for repentance:

Also the Lord was pleased to awaken us
(to our sinful neglect of the Sabbath)
with an army of caterpillars that,
had He not suddenly rebuked them,
they had surely destroyed the husbandman's hope.

Edward Johnson's The Wonder-working Providence of Sion's Savior in New England (1654). There is nothing like seeing the Day of Judgment right around the corner to suffuse every moment, and every caterpillar, with meaning.

Johnson, with the King James Version in hand, uses the term "caterpillar" in the modern sense; that is, the larval forms of the order Lepidoptera (better known as moths and butterflies, who in their later stages have their own terms of venery). The word "caterpillar" is first recorded in 1440, though no term of venery is recorded in the The Book of St. Albans (1486). In fact, only three collective terms for insects (for bees, lice and flies) are recorded in any of the classic English treatises on hunting and hawking up through Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801). 

Yet Lapham's Quarterly (2013) claims a St. Albans source for the term of venery "army of caterpillars." This is incorrect, as not only is "caterpillar" lacking, but there is nothing in any of the treatises that identifies a noun of assembly as an "army." One does, however, find in The Book of St. Albans "a host of sparrows," which according to James Hodgkin writing for the Philological Society (1908) denotes "an army or hostile force, and not without cause, from their destructive habits." Similar logic and the precedence of the biblical tradition surely apply to caterpillars.

There are nearly one-quater million on-line instances of "army of caterpillars" since Edward Johnson to settle the ubiquity of the term. Homeowners are instructed in The American City, Town & Country Edition (1919) how to prevent "an army of caterpillars" from invading their premises. Issac P. Trimble, M.D., New Jersey state entomologist writing in his diaries in 1865, records how an "army of caterpillars ... made such sad havoc with the foliage of our fruit trees." In 1885, geologist and cartographer Clarence Dutton uses the image for the unusual topography of the Colorado Plateau, describing "many short abrupt ranges, or ridges, looking upon the map like an army of caterpillars crawling northward." These caterpillars invite reverence much more than they do repentance.

In 2011, the Dictionary of Entomology labeled "army of caterpillars" the official term of venery in the unlikely case there continues to be doubt.

* oruga {es}
* eruga {ca}
* chenille {fr} 
carpéleuse {nrm}
The Old Norman French "catepelose" (cate, cat + pelose, hairy) is the source of the English word. 
* 毛虫 (kemushi) {jp} 
毛虫 (máochóng) {zh}
Amusingly, in Japanese and Chinese, caterpillar is , hairy + , insect.
κάμπια (kámpia) {el}
Given the Greek "kámpia" for caterpillar, the so far unattested adjectival form should naturally be "kampian."

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