Bee Lines

A beekeeper can also be called an apiarist. These two words demonstrate how the English language developed on different tracks.

Photo by Trollinho on Unsplash

Bee derives from the Germanic roots of English, related to Dutch bij and German Beie. The api- words derive from the Romans’ word for bees, apis, including apiary, apiologist, apitherapy, apiarian, apiarist, apimania, and other words.

Note that bee is a short, simple word, while the bee-related words that start with “a” tend to be longer. That’s the pattern. Good old Anglo-Saxon words are often short and sweet (like good, old, short, and sweet), while Latinate words tend to be sustained and elongated, not to say complicated and protracted. Compare dish and container, house and domicile, mouth and orifice, bug and insect, and you see the pattern. Our thesauri are filled with such synonyms partly because we have both old English words and fancy Latinate words that mean pretty much the same thing.

To simplify a complex history, Latin-derived words flooded English following the 1066 Norman Invasion of England. Native English folk were communicating just fine with their mostly Germanic words until those French people moved in and took control, bringing their Romance (i.e., Roman) language with them. This history partly explains why English has so many words.

Anyway, bee is an appropriately little word for a little creature. Ant (although shortened from its Old English root) is also tiny, in contrast to its Latin equivalent formica (pronounced for-mee-cah), which gave birth to many interesting words that most of us don’t know. Formication – pronounce it carefully! – denotes itchiness that feels like ants crawling on the skin. The adjective formicant describes someone crawling around like an ant. Formic acid, as in formaldehyde, was distilled from red ants by a German chemist in 1749.

Interestingly, formic acid is found in bee stings, bringing us full circle back to the apimaniacal blog topic of the week, i.e., bees.  

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