Consider the honeybee bee
I have one more post to write in the pollen series, but I keep getting sidetracked by the photos people send me. Yesterday’s thermal images were awesome, but today’s photo is totally annoying.
The photo below was taken at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum by beekeeper David Caylor. The text is on the wall of the entomology section. Being a regular reader of Honey Bee Suite, David knows how the word “honeybee,” all run together like that, irritates me no end. So he sent this picture to give me heart failure. What? The folks at the Smithsonian can’t spell?
As I told David, maybe the writing is on the wall, so to speak. Maybe the language is changing faster than I can adapt.
But there are very good reasons that most entomologists insist that “honeybee” is wrong, that it should actually be two words. My favorite quote explaining the reason is by Robert E. Snodgrass:
Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an aphislion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.”–From Anatomy of the Honey Bee.
Think about it. The word “bee” is a noun. In English, the adjective that describes the type of bee goes before it, so it becomes honey bee, bumble bee, sweat bee, carpenter bee. When you go to the grocery store (not the grocerystore) you buy yellow beans and green beans, not yellowbeans, greenbeans, or greatnorthernbeans. My spellchecker is freaking.
Yes, languages that make sense put the adjective after the noun not before. But in English, you wait in suspense to find out what is being written about. “It was a big, red, shiny”—wait in suspense right here—“pomegranate!” It could have easily been a car, apple, or welt.
Now, take the word “fly.” If the thing you are referring to is actually a fly, you have the noun “fly” preceded by the type of fly, let’s say hover. So you have “hover fly.” But if the thing is not a fly, you need a whole new noun to identify it.
For example, since a butterfly is not a fly, the word “butter” does not modify the word “fly.” Instead “butterfly” is its own thing, a completely different noun. You can modify that noun with another descriptor, say “blue,” which gives you “blue butterfly.” But you don’t write “bluebutterfly” or “blue butter fly.”
A beewolf is not a wolf (nor a bee) but is something completely different, a wasp. So you can write “beewolf” or “beewolf wasp,” but not “bee wolf” or “beewolfwasp.” Get it?
I happen to have a yellow jacket in my closet. It’s a good jacket, warm with lots of pockets, and I would never consider killing it. The yellow and black wasp that bugs picnickers is a yellowjacket because it is not, in fact, a jacket.
I almost didn’t buy what turned out to be an excellent book, Honeybee Democracy, because of the spelling. Certainly Thomas Seeley knows better. But later I read that his daughters encouraged the spelling because it makes the title rhyme. But wait: Honeybee Democracy rhymes and Honey Bee Democracy doesn’t? I’m lost.
People like Seeley and the folks at the Smithsonian are changing the language, and I think it is sad. With rules of spelling, you can derive meaning. You can look at the word “glowworm” and, knowing nothing else, you realize it is not a worm. You know a hairstreak is not a streak (nor a hair), yet you know a stag beetle really is a beetle. But when spellings become random, you can’t draw conclusions. You become lost in a sea of unrelated words where the simplest terms are confusing. Perhaps we should call it a “honeybee bee.”
Thanks to David for the instructive, if maddening, photo.