The ultimate earworms

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From Lev Michael at Greater Blogazonia:

I was briefly excited by the title of a recent Language Log post, Earworms and White Bears, thinking it might have something to say about, well, worms that people put in their ears. However, we immediately learn that the earworms in question are simply catchy tunes that get caught in people’s minds.

My excitement, though, stems from the fact that the Nantis of southeastern Peruvian Amazonia, with whom I have worked a bit (see here and here), actually do sometimes put worms — or more precisely, larvae — in their ears. I’ve never heard or read about any other group that makes use of larvae in this way, though, so I was momentarily hoping that Language Log would change that

The Nantis call the larvae in question magempiri, and they are one of a number of larvae that Nantis help flourish by means of a form of low-intensity animal husbandry where they puncture the trunks of the palm species in which the relevant species of beetle must lay their eggs. When the magempiri are the right size, a portion of the trunk is split open and some larvae removed, together with some of the pulp on which the larvae are feeding. The pulp and larvae are then wrapped up in Heliconia leaves, in which the larvae can live for several days.

The magempiri are used to clean one’s ears: tilting one’s head, one drops a larva into the ear canal and the magempiri then starts munching away on what it finds there, creating an incredible racket (for the temporary host), and producing a funny if somewhat gratifying ticklish feeling. When the magempiri gets full, it becomes inactive, and simply falls out of the ear canal when the user tilts his or her head the opposite way. Repeat until satisfied.

Read the whole thing, for the bonus discussion of the morphology of magempiri.

Magempiri are one of the few things that you can't yet buy from, at least not under that name.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    Like fish cleaning feet:

    Or alleviating the symptoms of psoriasis:

  2. Karl Narveson said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    I wonder how the magempiri compares in efficacy with a jet of warm water squirted from the rubber bulb that I sometimes resort to.

  3. octopus said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    A while back, I read a popular book that mentioned a Yanomamo man doing this. The bug was described as living in the grass, not in the palms; its normal diet was said to be plant wax. I think the book was Into the Heart, by Kenneth Good. Also found a mention of something similar here:*+earwax&q=yanomam*+ear#search_anchor

    It certainly sounds safer than using Q-tips!

  4. Robert Coren said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    @Victor Mair: One of my mild regrets is that I did not take advantage of any of the several opportunities to have my feet cleaned by fish when I was in SE Asia this past winter.

  5. arianne said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    @Robert Coren: Maybe it's a good thing you didn't get the opportunity (see

  6. Martha said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    I have a very strong fear of insects getting in my years, especially while I'm asleep. This was one of the most horrifying things I've ever read.

    Robert Coren – Some pedicure shops in the U.S. have the fish!

  7. Robert Coren said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    @Martha: Not the same thing. (I've never had a pedicure in my life.)

  8. Nelida K. said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    This would save me my twice-a-year visit to the otorhynolaryngologist (ear, throat and nose doctor), but… I think I will rather stick with the evil known. Just in case. Brrr….

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    It's not real if there are no pictures.

  10. Dogma versus Rules of Thumb » No Contest Communications said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

    […] Log is an always stimulating group blog on language and linguistics, with posts that range from earworms and usage advice to research tools and sociolinguistics. The comments sections are as illuminating […]

  11. hanmeng said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    This reminds me of Khan's Worms from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan:

  12. Ray Girvan said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    @Ray Girvan: By the way – just to clarify – my previous comment wasn't doubting the account, just a grumpy recognition that I've descended into that ghastly Internet mindset of expecting everything to have pictures.

  13. Philip TAYLOR said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 4:05 am

    I have had my feet cleaned by fish at Vouliagmeni, near Athens, and it is one of the most pleasant sensations I have ever experienced. I would love to try earworms, too, having had to use cotton buds + ear drops for that purpose for the last 25 years …

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