Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Today's Word: Larva

Today's word is interesting because it meaning today and its meaning to people in the past are completely distinct ideas - and we owe the modern meaning to one man.

A larva is the immature stage of life for many insects. It's a strange and mysterious phase that bears no physical resemblance to the mature stage of the insect's life. Larvae come in many variety, but are typically nothing more than odd sacs of DNA, writhing and wriggling in their enthusiasm for life! Kafka even wrote a play using the metamorphosis of a butterfly as his central analogy!

But the word larva used to be used to mean a disembodied soul! A larva was a ghost! In fact, in Latin, larva means "terrifying mask" ! A larva was a malevolent spirit!

So, how did this terrifying specter become an infant caterpillar?


Yes, that famed Swede - Carl Linnaeus - forever changed the word with the deft stroke of a pen in 1691!

Linnaeus, of course, is the man who is responsible for the creating a system of categorizing all living things in science! Not a small feat! He was a genius of a man, who saw that the world, though complex and vast, had structure. With this realization, he set out to document and catalog the entire thing!

He started with plants in the wilds of Lapland, and ultimately filled out his system to include animals large and small.

His methods of naming things was perhaps the only non-scientific thing about his system. He chose names that made sense to him in a fairly arbitrary and personal way (Humans are 'Homo sapiens', because 'sapien' means "with intelligence" - obviously highly debatable, both then and now. 'Mammals' are grouped together because they have 'mammary glands' - and Linnaeus was a staunch believer in the importance nursing children.). It was using this method that he decided that the pre-metamorphosis stage of life for insects was a kind of otherworldly state of existence. He used the term that the ancients had given to spirits and demons to represent this mercurial stage - 'larva'. And ever since, the larva has been a significantly less frightening thing.

Linnaeus was a busy man!

He is responsible for our association of gender with certain symbols (♂ - the Shield and Arrow of Mars for male, and ♀ - the Mirror of Venus for female). He also had time to co-create the temperature measure known as Celsius that is still used today throughout most of the world. And he even wrote lectures on sex called "How to get together"! Marvin Gaye would have been proud!

Linnaeus was a fascinating man! He was a failed entrepreneur too. His family got its name from their early exploits as lime-tree growers - and he never lost his interest in cultivating new crops. Sadly, his attempts to create teas and coffees from Swedish-native plants all failed miserably.

So, the mighty larva is no longer a haunting demon. No! It is a beginning. It is the first stage of a spirit's journey rather than the last, all due to one man.



Blogger fdfs said...

Very, very interesting! It's not often that a word has such a convoluted and yet such a clear metamorphosis of meaning over the years. Great post.

9:52 PM  

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