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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of etymology and entomology

At last, a post which really is about both etymology and entomology!
I recently saw an article in the Toronto Star stating that 8% of Canadians receive their TV signal by "antennae". Now, the Star is not one for pretentious Latin plurals (or any Latin plurals for that matter) so it rather surprised me that they hadn't used "antennas", which, as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary entry shows, is the standard plural for the broadcasting sense of "antenna", whereas "antennae" is used for insects, lobsters, etc.:

1. ( pl. antennas ) a metal rod, wire, or other structure by which signals are transmitted or received as part of a radio or television transmitting or receiving system.
2. ( pl. antennae) (Zool.) one of a pair of mobile appendages on the heads of insects, crustaceans, etc., sensitive to touch and taste; a feeler.
3. (antennae) the faculty of instinctively detecting and interpreting subtle signs (the dulling effect of the suburbs on a person's hipness antennae).
- DERIVATIVES antennal adjective  (in sense 2).
- ORIGIN Latin, = sail yard

What is a sail yard, you are no doubt wondering, and what can it possibly have to do with an insect's feelers? It's not the same word as the one you use for your garden. A yard is a horizontal (or diagonal) bar attached to the mast of a sailing ship, from which the sail is suspended.
You can see from the picture above the resemblance of  the bit of the yard jutting out beyond the end of the sail to the feelers on the head of an insect.  A fifteenth-century translator into Latin of a work about insects decided to use the word antennae instead of the word cornuae (horns). This caught on amongst the entomology set, and since it was snobbier to use Latin words for scientific subjects than  boring English words like "horn" or "feeler" which had served perfectly well until then, finally took over as the standard word in English. In 1894 Marconi, experimenting with radio transmission, patented an elevated antenna, and the word took on a new life. 


  1. Nice! =COD 1. pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory.
    nice! =COD 4.(a) fine or subtle (a nice distinction). (b) requiring careful thought or attention (a nice problem).

  2. Surely the difference is that an Entomologist must count the legs on a centipede where as an Etymologist does not need to.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.