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. Continue reading


We had been on bamboo rafts in the Periyar Lake most of the morning, and had gone on shore briefly to visit the night ranger’s encampment.  I had been there several times previously, but today was different. We witnessed one of the greatest wonders of the natural world—a mother elephant and her calf (because of a mother’s aggressively defensive instincts, it is rare for humans to see this combo in the forest).  It was too spectacular for words, and even photos are worth just a few thousand words—not nearly as much as it felt worth while there.

By midday we were back on the water, and the rush of seeing such a huge and intelligent creature bonding with its offspring was lingering, but passing. We landed for a bit of respite. As the rest of the group ate lunch and talked, I decided to renew that rush with a change of perspective: from charismatic megafauna to wily winged minifauna. I crouched on the parched rocks, squatted and staring at my camera’s viewfinder. I had been stalking my tiny target along the shore for almost 30 minutes, and had enough mud, pebbles, grass and dung on my knees to open eyes at a detergent expo.

My eyes strained to focus on the strangely camouflaged creatures I was hunting. Scanning the motionless terrain of the shoreline, I saw no movement except for the gentlest rippling of grass and the lake’s surface with the breeze. I got impatient and decided to draw them out of hiding. It wouldn’t take much – I lifted my foot and took a step forward, and there!

A bright blue-green dragonfly that had been surreptitiously clinging to a twig alighted, and began to zoom around. Continue reading