Word Matters: Words Matter


We don’t speak of bears or tigers murdering people. Why, suddenly, hornets? Photograph by Elaine Thompson / Pool / AFP / Getty

When we first linked to a story about this creature, we were sharing a familiar story of introduced and invasive species and a creative approach to controlling the spread. We have favored entrepreneurial approaches, so that culinary story from Japan fit perfectly in our pages. But we also have been equally attentive to word matters since we started on this platform. So Matthew Alt’s coverage of this story, demonstrating how much words matter, also fits perfectly in our pages:

Do “Murder Hornets” Really Exist?

The answer hinges on a peculiarity of the Japanese language.

In the Old Testament, God wrought ten plagues upon humanity. In modern times, we have our hands full with just one: covid-19. Or so we thought, until it was reported, in the May 2nd edition of the Times, that a new pestilence is afoot. “Murder hornets” with “mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins,” we were told, were descending upon North America from their native habitat of Asia. Within twenty-four hours, the hashtag #murderhornets was trending on Twitter, fuelled by all the excitement befitting what sounds like a newly discovered species of homicidal Pokémon. Sensing a rare non-virus viral story, major media outlets ranging from the Washington Post to Fox News pounced. They began amplifying the insect threat with their own details, many of them simply rephrased from the original piece; by the middle of last week, Jimmy Fallon was interviewing a “murder hornet” in costume on “The Tonight Show.” (“Look, we’re just regular old bees who happen to make things fall asleep forever.”)

This is a familiar story of how trending topics drive the modern news cycle, but it’s also a testament to the power of a catchy label. Murder hornet is the nickname bestowed upon Vespa mandarinia, the already formidable-sounding Asian giant hornet, which is native to large swaths of East Asia. The Japanese call it ōsuzumebachi: literally, giant sparrow-hornet. They aren’t actually sparrow-size; the biggest specimens come in at just under two inches long. But that is cold comfort when one hears their menacing, resonant buzz approaching, which is something that occurs with disconcerting regularity if you spend time outdoors during the summer months in Japan.

The monsoons and humidity that can make Japan difficult to bear during the summer also make it a haven for insects and other creepy-crawlies. Some of them grow to truly enormous proportions. To the sparrow-hornet you can add startlingly large cockroaches, enormous orb-weaver spiders, and centipedes that can reach six inches in length. So, too, palm-size rhinoceros beetles and stag beetles. Unlike the dreaded hornet and its ilk, these gentle giants are beloved traditional playthings. The males use their horns to wrestle each other away from sources of food and from potential mates. Collected by children and squared off in sumo-style matches, these giant armored beetles provided the cultural template for the virtual battles that Japanese video-game designers would perfect in the eighties and nineties.

I know these things both because I love bugs enough to have flirted with majoring in entomology during my university studies, and because I have lived in Tokyo for close to twenty years. Even in the city, one has occasional run-ins with giant hornets during the summer months. Here, they are rightfully feared even without nicknames, and incidents involving them regularly make headlines. Like all wasps and other hornets, and unlike honeybees, giant hornets have smooth stingers that allow them to attack repeatedly. The Asian giant hornet’s barb packs an especially potent poison, and, every year, dozens of Japanese lose their lives as a result of anaphylactic shock. Asian giant hornets tend to nest in hidden places, such as the hollows of trees or ground burrows. Removing, or even simply approaching, these hives is dangerous work. Their stingers easily penetrate standard beekeeping suits, necessitating thick protective gear and specialized equipment such as vacuums to suck the creatures out of the air as they mass to protect their homes…

Read the whole story here.

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