Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flee the Flea!

Fleas are insects of the genus Psylla or the family Psyllidae. Those words come from the Greek πσυλλα, meaning flea.

The color puce, described as dark purple brown or brownish purple [French couleur puce], was so named because that is the standard color of a flea. This was joined by puceron, a plant louse or aphid.

Many of the words in English that refer to fleas came from the Latin pulex/pulic-.

  • pulicarious: of the nature of or resembling a flea.
  • pulicary: resembling a flea.
  • pulicine: of or relating to a flea or fleas.
  • pulicious: ιnfested with fleas; (of a disease) caused or transmitted by the bites of fleas.
  • pulicose: ιnfested with fleas; caused by or resembling the bite of a flea; of the nature of a flea.

One of the strangest hidden fleas is found in ukulele, the musical instrument. It comes from the Hawaiian uku, flea + lele, jumping. Testimony is found in a 1957 edition of American Speech, XXXII. 309:

“The machete* was heard one day by the vice-chamberlain of King Kalakaua's court, who asked to be taught to play it. This vice-chamberlain was a British army officer named Edward Purvis; but the Hawaiians called him ukulele because his lively playing and antics and his small build suggested a leaping flea. The new instrument became a great success, and someone started calling them ukeleles.”

[*machete: A small chiefly four-stringed form of guitar played in Portugal, Madeira, etc., which is the forerunner of the ukulele.]

SIDEBAR: Ukulele Remix of Smells Like Teen Spirit

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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