John Larrysson Column: Names of Cockroaches

Cockroaches are common and troublesome pests in many homes. Another troublesome thing about them is that their English names and (Latin) scientific names make no sense. The most common type of cockroach in Hong Kong is the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). Others found here are the Australian cockroach (Periplaneta australiasiae) and the German cockroach (Blattella germanica). Significantly the oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis) and the Asian cockroach (Blattella asahinai) are not usually found here in Hong Kong. These cockroach names appear to be insulting to the named countries. As I will explain, these names have little to do with where the insects came from.

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The word cockroach is an early seventeen century borrowing from the Spanish word for cockroach, cucaracha. They are a very old insect found early in the fossil record. There are thousands of species of cockroach in the world, but only a few live in people's homes. The rest of them live in their original habitat, the leaf litter of tropical forests.

The German cockroach is also called the Polish cockroach and the Russian cockroach, depending on whom one is trying to insult. None of these countries are potential sources of such a tropical insect. However this insect is common in south-east Asia and that is a more likely origin.

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The American cockroach came from Africa. It was probably brought to America during the slave trade. So the name is a little poetic justice.

The Asian cockroach is so named because it was first identified on the Pacific island of Okinawa. Strictly speaking that is not in Asia and this insect is not commonly found in Asia. It is less common in homes and is helpful to farmers because it does eat the eggs of some crop insect pests.

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The brownbanded cockroach (Supella longipalpa) is at least a good description of that insect. The Australian cockroach may have come from Africa. However Australia at least has tropical forests. So there is some possibility of it actually being local. The German / Polish / Russian / American / Asian / Oriental cockroach names are a good example of why animal names do not always make sense. Sometimes names do get changed, but so far these have not. So we just have to be aware that sometimes names do not make sense and try to avoid insulting people when we use them.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


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