Insect name

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How would you respond in your native language if someone walked up to you and asked (in your native language or in English or some other language which both of you know), "What's the word for 'the insect that eats wood and destroys walls'?".

A friend of mine in China did that with eight of his colleagues, and not a single one of them could remember the Chinese name for "the insect that eats wood and destroys walls".

In Mandarin, it is:

báiyǐ 白蚁 (lit., "white ant", i.e., "termite")

Curious.



45 Comments

  1. BZ said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 11:51 am

    Although this may be because I was only 11 years old, I don't recall knowing about termite in Russia. On the other hand termite damage was a pretty commonly talked about issue here in the US. Are termites as serious a problem in China as in the US?

  2. Matt said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

    How common are termites where they come from? I kept thinking "carpenter ant" notwithstanding they didn't actually eat the wood and I knew this was *supposed* to be about termites, in part because carpenter ants are fairly common around here though I don't think I've seen a termite in the wild in my life.

  3. Sergey Babkin said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    Perhaps termite is not typical for China, or for that particular region of China? To give another example, in Russia the termite is known only from the books and movies, and it isn't normally associated with destroying walls (especially that in modern Russia the walls are typically made of brick or concrete).

    A more interesting experiment would be to ask people in the different regions of USA, and compare the regions where the termites live and where they don't.

  4. Bernard Moreland said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 12:36 pm

    Double-wall housing (wood frame, siding outside, drywall inside) seems much more popular in America than East Asia, and it's particular vulnerable to termites. East Asians traditionally preferred brick, now prefer reinforced concrete.

  5. Frans said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

    "Wasp."

  6. Tim Rowe said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 12:58 pm

    I saw the "eats wood" and thought of woodworm or death watch beetle, but then saw the "destroys walls" and drew a blank. We tend not to get termites here in the UK, and the internet tells me that most of China doesn't get them either. I suspect that, rather than being a linguistic issue, this is a cultural issue of assuming the whole world is like the bit you know.

  7. Rosie Redfield said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    @Matt: Termites are very abundant worldwide, but they're rarely seen unless you start ripping wood or termite mounds apart.

    I can understand why they're not a big problem in the UK (most houses are not built of wood), but why not in China?

  8. Mark Hansell said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 1:28 pm

    If they are from far enough north, they may not have termites. (Where I live in Minnesota, they don't exist.) Also, if they live in an area that builds mostly stone/concrete/brick houses, they may not consider termites a major problem. I remember being in Taiwan in the 70's and wondering why the old Chinese farmhouses were all brick, while the Japanese colonial-era houses were made of wood. Then I saw how the Japanese houses were being chewed into dust by termites, and I understood the wisdom of the brick houses.

    (Interesting side note– I lived on the 4th floor of a concrete building, with a nice wooden parquet floor. Late at night when the city was quiet we could hear crunching sounds, and in the morning we would find little piles of sawdust next to tiny holes in the wood floor– the termites were slowly eating it out from under us!)

  9. Michael Moszczynski said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

    Grew up in Canada, immediately thought 'termite' when I answered the question. However, I grew up bilingual in Polish and have definitely never heard the Polish word 'termit' – but everyone I know here lives in large apartment buildings made of concrete. I think in countries where there just aren't that many single-family homes, termites don't come up very often in casual conversation.

  10. Simon K said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    I completely agree with Tim Rowe that this is a cultural rather than language issue. I (British) would have unequivocally given the answer "woodworm", though thinking you'd be unlucky to have them destroy your walls rather than just furniture. Termites would never even occur to me as an answer. Google tells me there's only ever been one established colony of termites in the UK, discovered in 1995 and eradicated after intensive efforts a few years later.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

    There are plenty of termites in China, especially south of the Yangtze River. Many people who have stored their fortune in a box under their bed or in the ground discover that termites have devoured the bank notes.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    The source cited in Wikipedia states: "Termite distribution in China is restricted to the tropical, subtropical, and milder habitats south of the Yangtze River." The same source strongly implies that in Europe, termites are limited to the Mediterranean coastline, which explains why I've never seen one, or evidence of one, in the wild and why languages like English tend not to have a word for them other than the scientific name or "white ant".

    It seems to me that termites can't survive when the soil freezes.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    There are ads for termite exterminators all around Pennsylvania and Ohio. My neighbors recently had a sign up saying that their house was being treated for termites.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 4:38 pm

    After some introspection, I now suspect that it is the unwonted specificity of "destroys walls" that lies at the heart of the problem. Whilst, like my fellow Britons who have commented here, I have no first-hand experience of termites whatsoever, my exposure to them via the medium of television has led me to believe that they destroy timbed-framed buildings rather than walls per se. Why, I wonder, was the question phrased in such an arguably strange way ?

  15. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 4:49 pm

    I thought termites were creatures which built mounds, and were eaten by chimpanzees armed with sticks.

    Like some of the others, I thought the insects which eats wood were woodworm, although I'd be surprised if they ate a wall.

  16. Bathrobe said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

    Where were the colleagues from? If your friend asked northerners he/she might have drawn a blank. Would the result have been different if he/she asked southerners? And would the southerners be familiar with a dialect term rather than Mandarin?

    (As a very general observation, I suspect that Mandarin is well equipped to describing north Chinese phenomena, less so for the far south or southwest. After all, Mandarin is a colonial language not originally native to the south. Well, I will put that out there; I am sure it can be challenged or demolished.)

  17. alex said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formosan_subterranean_termite

    "The Formosan termite (Coptotermes formosanus) is an invasive species of termite. It has been transported worldwide from its native range in southern China to Formosa (Taiwan, where it gets its name) and Japan. In the 20th century, it became established in South Africa, Sri Lanka,[1] Hawaii, and the continental United States.

    The Formosan termite is often nicknamed the super-termite because of its destructive habits due to the large size of its colonies and its ability to consume wood at a rapid rate. A single colony may contain several million individuals (compared with several hundred thousand termites for other subterranean termite species) that forage up to 300 feet (100 m) in soil. A mature Formosan colony can consume as much as 13 ounces of wood a day (about 400 g) and can severely damage a structure in as little as three months. Because of its population size and foraging range, the presence of a colony poses serious threats to nearby structures. Once established, Formosan termites have never been eradicated from an area."

    THE KEY POINT

    A single colony of C. formosanus may produce over 70,000 alates. After a brief flight, alates shed their wings.

    Literally when its bad like on the tennis courts it blankets the courts so that there you cant even open your mouth so there is no play during these times. At night they seem to go toward light sources. Their wings are everywhere. Now its true perhaps many aren't from SZ but enough are from southern China. That said perhaps no one was curious growing up to ever ask what are these insects that swarm with the density of a locust plague every year.

    "C. formosanus is the most economically serious pest in Hawaii, costing residents $100 million a year.[12] Historic structures in Hawaii have been threatened, such as Iolani Palace in Honolulu.[13]

    C. formosanus has its greatest impact in North America. It is currently one of the most destructive pests in the United States"

  18. AntC said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 5:42 pm

    "What's the word for 'the insect that eats wood and destroys walls'?"

    'Borer' in New Zealand and Australia. Hylotrupes bajulus

    Not a termite. More voracious than woodworm. Borer prefers the softwood framing of your house and floorboards over the harder wood furniture — but they'll go for that too. Quite literally in my house they so much weakened a floorboard that I fell through it.

  19. Alex said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 5:43 pm

    Growing up in the US I didnt know the Chinese name for termite.

    I asked people because while at the tennis courts I wanted to know. So I asked people in the club house because we were all huddled there. Some said I used to know. Then used my translator.

    As I have mentioned before, it seems that on average people know less nouns for many objects and parts of objects such as the parts of a car or breeds of dogs or types of trees or names of flowers etc.

  20. Christian Weisgerber said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 6:14 pm

    Here in Germany I would expect responses like
    "Keine Ahnung." (Dunno.)
    "Holzbock?" (House borer?)

    Initially I wasn't sure what insect Victor had in mind, but given that he's American, I realized he had to mean termites. These don't occur naturally in Central and Northern Europe, so they are perceived as exotic insects there.

  21. Chris C. said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 6:36 pm

    I grew up in NJ, and never saw a termite there; nor was it a concern for homeowners. Had I not been exposed to Warner Bros. cartoons, it's likely I'd never have heard of them until adulthood, and if I had my primary association would not be "home destroyers." I'd have thought primarily of the Australian and African mound-building species.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 7:35 pm

    I just had dinner with a student from Zhenghou, Henan, and her parents. This student went to college in Xiamen / Amoy. When I asked her the question of the o.p., she right away, without the slightest hesitation, said "báiyǐ 白蚁" (lit., "white ant", i.e., "termite"), although her parents didn't know quite what to say.

    The reason my student was so clear about what "báiyǐ 白蚁" (lit., "white ant", i.e., "termite") are is similar to what Alex said about them regarding playing tennis when they were swarming (Alex is from Shenzhen, also in South China). My student told me that AFTER RAIN, the "báiyǐ 白蚁" (lit., "white ants", i.e., "termites") would sprout wings and just blanket the air in the classrooms and dorm rooms. Then their wings would fall off and there would be a thick litter of the wings on the floor, and the termites would fall in the students' hair and on their arms, etc. She told me it was a ghastly experience when this happened.

  23. Alex said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

    Indeed it is right after the rain as the rain interferes with their flying/mating.

    As for Chris C. I definitely am a huge believer of children's tv shows . Even more than when I was growing up as a child in the 70's. The shows now are more structured and methodical and more informative. I would definitely say both my sons have a much larger vocabulary than I did at the same age even though they are growing up here in China. The TV show Arthur and Magic School bus to name just 2 of many are tremendous vocabulary builders.

    I keep telling parents here the tv shows are the best way for their kids to learn vocabulary at a young age and accent as they don't have an environment here.

    Now the difference is beyond evident in the learning cycle between hearing and reading. Both my sons have a super solid phonetic foundation. Because of this they can read many words because they have heard the word before on the tv shows.
    How does that happen with Chinese programs and reading Chinese.

    Now i am wondering what percentage of multi-character words use only the base 3000 words

  24. Andrew Usher said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

    I suspect in addition to the cultural/geographical aspects mentioned, there's a dialectal one, too. Namely, Americans are universally familar with the word and concept 'termite' even if they've never experienced it themselves. So, any insects that destroy wood are liable to be called 'termites' by default even if other parts of the world would use different names.

    And 'termite' is no longer a scientific name esp. in America but an ordinary English word, given the pronunciation that matches its spelling.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  25. Leo said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 1:43 am

    Native UK speaker. My first thought was "woodpecker". I immediately realised this was ludicrous, and after a few seconds of mental searching came up with "termite". I have never seen one, and very rarely have occasion to use the word.

  26. Vilinthril said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 2:31 am

    I guess my first answer would've been "Holzwurm", but "Termite" would have been a close second.

  27. B.Ma said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 3:14 am

    I only know this word in Cantonese because my uncles and aunts used to say it a lot when we had occasional infestations in Australia, but they didn't know the English word.

    But, to reference a recent Victor Mair post, I didn't know qixingpiaochong because I've never talked about ladybirds in Chinese and I didn't watch children's TV or read children's books in Chinese.

    ZH Wikipedia says Germans also call them Unglückshafte. (Not sure why that merits inclusion in a Chinese encyclopedia.)

  28. Michael said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 8:17 am

    It has only been about 7 or 8 years since the Formosan termites invaded my area here in Alabama. We've always had other types of termites, but the Formosans are a huge pest. They swarm around light and leave their wings everywhere and there's a much higher chance of them invading homes than other varieties in my experience. Very invasive and destructive little buggers they are.

    It is interesting to see that many folks here not from the U.S. had trouble thinking of termites, whereas I would have never thought of woodworms.

  29. alex said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    @leo

    Curious how you were able to recall that like the process.

  30. David L said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    This has nothing to do with language, but now I'm wondering why termites are basically unknown in England, where I grew up, but a widespread pest in the mid-Atlantic US, where I've lived for 3 decades. The climates are not that dissimilar — winter in the Va/DC/Md region tends to be a little harsher than winter in southern England, and the summer here is much hotter — but if the limiting factor in the geographical distribution of termites is the severity of winter, then it's puzzling that they prosper here but haven't gained a foothold in England, or indeed N Europe more generally.

    Perhaps it's the length of the European winter that termites don't like. Or maybe they need the extreme summer heat.

  31. Alex said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 10:13 am

    @ David

    They prefer Seinfeld over Monty Python!

  32. Jim said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 3:44 pm

    Culturally in the US, everyone probably over 35 knows what a termite is — from popular culture references, especially cartoons. Living in the Northwest, I have never had to deal with them, no exposure other than pop culture except for a trip to South Africa.

    (Those under 35 or whatever age, I don't know if their cartoon references hit the same notes mine did. Maybe, since the show writers would have that older background, but they might not have used the same exaggerated tropes, opting for newer ones instead.)

  33. Christian Weisgerber said,

    May 21, 2019 @ 4:10 pm

    @B.Ma

    ZH Wikipedia says Germans also call them Unglückshafte.

    That is an odd claim. As a German, I'm unaware of this designation. It also isn't in the lengthy DE Wikipedia article. And since termites don't occur naturally in German-speaking countries, I don't expect there to be any regional folk names for them.

    Googling turns up an entry from a 1909 encyclopedia (Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon) that does in fact mention "Unglückshafte" as an alias. I don't know what to make of this. Presumably a calque from some other language, once used in travel reports?

  34. Not a naive speaker said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 1:40 am

    In [Grimms Wörterbuch entry "Unglück"](http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=DWB&mode=Vernetzung&lemid=GU07861#XGU08043)
    is an obscure reference to [Brehms Tierleben](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brehms_Tierleben)
    unglückshafte termitidae Brehm tierleben 9
    (Band 9: Insekten (Tausendfüssler und Spinnen – 387 Abb., 21 Tafeln)

  35. Sven Sahle said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 4:01 am

    @Christian Weisgerber

    I have also never heard of the term "Unglückshafte" before, and also thought it was unlikely, but google books turns up a reference to "Die tierischen Schädlinge im Sprachgebrauch" by Heinrich Kemper that briefly discusses this name (p198).

  36. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 10:07 am

    I grew up in southernmost Ohio near Cincinnati (born 1969). I immediately thought of termites and have known of them my entire life. I've seen termite damage but have never knowingly seen an actual termite, other than on Terminix tv commercials.

    I now live in SoCal and termites are also a problem here. Again, I've seen the damage, but not the insect itself.

  37. liuyao said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 11:51 am

    Why not just ask the eight people why they couldn't remember the word?

    I know it because I used to know a lot of random animal facts (including the image of a big termite mound in Africa), and because I've heard Chinese people in US talk about termite problem at their house, though I don't think I've ever seen one, live or dead.

  38. ohwilleke said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 1:48 pm

    Fun fact: Termites are eusocial cockroaches.

    https://www.livescience.com/1447-termites-social-cockroaches.html

  39. David Marjanović said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:31 am

    Looks like Unglückshaft is something Brehm made up. Unglück is "bad luck, catastrophe"; Haft is a very rare word for very rare kinds of insects – not cockroaches; the only ones I seem to have heard of are the Fanghafte, the mantispids, which look and behave a lot like mantids but have a quite different origin. (Fangen is "to catch".)

  40. Rachael Churchill said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 6:08 am

    I'm British and I thought "termite", although I only know them from cartoons, not real life. I didn't think "woodworm" because it said insect and I assumed woodworm were worms, although looking it up now apparently they're beetle larvae. Woodworm are as alien to my IRL experience as termites are.

  41. Nicholas E Berry said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 7:18 am

    @Rosie Redfield
    They're not a big problem in the UK because they don't exist there, apart from a very few accidentally imported colonies.

  42. Lasius said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

    @David Marjanović

    "Hafte" aren't actually rare, just not well-known to laypeople. They usually denote Neuropteran taxa, such as Fanghafte (as you have already mentioned), Bachhafte, Schwammhafte, Schmetterlingshafte, Fadenhafte, Taghafte or Staubhafte.

  43. degsy said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    I would also have said Death Watch Beetle FWIW; largely because this has been a huge problem for more than one English acquaintance of mine who has bought property on the cheap in France. The phrase 'destroys walls' threw me too but than I imagined something like supporting beams collapsing.

  44. Benjamin Niyodusenga said,

    May 27, 2019 @ 2:38 am

    Hello everyone!

    In my native language (Kinyarwanda) we call that insect "umuswa".

  45. DRM said,

    May 27, 2019 @ 2:41 pm

    @Bernard Moreland East Asians traditionally preferred brick, now prefer reinforced concrete.

    East Asians? I'm pretty sure the Japanese are well-known for building in wood, buildings that get eaten by shiroari.

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