Words To Remember Every 13 Years

A vociferous buzz that radiates throughout parts of the United States makes the news—once every 13 years.

From the brilliant first light of day to the still and dark of night, a serenade is being sung. It is a mating call years in the making. Millions of cicadas come up from their underground bedrooms after completing a very long incubation period.

The largest variety of 13-year cicadas, known as “Brood XIX,” open their red-eyes, shed their skin, spread their wings, sing their song, eventually mate, and, like a Greek tragedy of the genus Tibicen kind, meet their death. All within a span of about two months.

Why is it called a cicada?

There is no proper English word for the cicada.  The Ancient Greek term is tettix and the modern Greek is tzitzikas. The modern English term is derived from the Latin cicada meaning “buzzer.” Like the Greek variations, the name is onomatopoeic.

In other words, it is an imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent—in this case the buzzing noise made when the male cicada vibrates certain membranes, or tymbals on its body—emitting a “love song” that, to the ears of other species, sounds like a droning buzz. This process is called stridulation.

(What does onomatopoeia have to do with a bag of chips? Find out here.)

Stridulation is from the Latin stridulus meaning, “giving a shrill sound, creaking.”

What’s love got to do with it?

The adult cicada is called an imago, the Latin term for “image.” Imago is also defined as “an idealized concept of a loved one, formed in childhood and retained unaltered in adult life.” A cicada nymph transforms into an imago by leaving its exoskeleton shell, a process called molting. In addition to their lovesick cry, the shell left behind after molting is the second most recognized signifier of cicadas.

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