A hundred words for …

It’s a common myth, often disputed, that the Inuit have many more words for snow than in English, and Bill Bryson, in his At Home: A Short History of Private Life tells us that in South America, there are many hundreds of potato-related words. English is widely accepted to have the largest vocabulary of all, so I was tickled to read that we have a surprisingly high number of dialect names for the many species of woodlouse native to the UK. Most seem to be related to pigs, cheese or grandparents for reasons unknown.

Why this linguistic treasure-trove is devoted to a rather humble resident of our gardens rather than to the thing that we are commonly thought to know and talk most about (rain!) is a puzzle, but a delight nevertheless.

Woodlice are isopods (a kind of crustacean), and the commonest variety here is Armadillidium vulgare – the smooth grey one that rolls up into a neat ball when disturbed. Anyone keeping chickens will be familiar with their keenness to gobble up a colony of these creatures disturbed from a log pile or other forgotten corner of the garden.

If you’d like to contribute to a survey (who wouldn’t?), Warren Maguire from the University of Edinburgh is collecting names. http://icge.co.uk/twitter_surveys/isopods