The Secret Life Of Roaches
So I was on my back the other day, underneath my kitchen sink, fortifying my apartment against an onslaught of German cockroaches (I’d better hide the Polish sausages). Maybe it was the quiet solitude of manual labor, or maybe it was the fumes of all the insecticide and adhesive caulk, but my mind started wandering and I started thinking about the word: roach.
Everything about them is offensive: the way they look, the way they act, the way they eat my food without asking (Just ask nicely like everyone else! I’ll still say no, but I at least appreciate the gesture).
Even the name is gross. And that got me thinking about where the name came from. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the word—much like the roaches themselves—turns up where you least expect it.
The first step is to find out where the word comes from.
Roach: This is the shortened version of the longer “cockroach.” But the word has a few other meanings as well. Unfortunately, none of those other definitions seems relevant to the little insect that terrorizes kitchens across the globe. Moving on.
Cockroach: Here we get a fuller definition of our little invaders.
1: any of numerous oval, flat-bodied insects of the family Blattidae, including several species that are common household pests.
What is curious here is the origin of the word: “by folk etymology from Spanish cucaracha.” Further research turns up Captain John Smith corroborating that account: “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.”
It seems as though the Pilgrims couldn’t handle the Spanish, so they gradually morphed the word from “cacarootch” into the now familiar cockroach.
But most interesting, however, is how the word “roach” creeps into other words, and gives hint to what they mean.
Encroach: 1: to enter by gradual steps or by stealth into the possessions or rights of another
2: to advance beyond the usual or proper limits
Ah-ha! Most of us may only be familiar with encroachment as a football penalty. But when roaches encroach into your home, there is no five-yard penalty. Roaches indeed enter our homes by stealth into the possessions of another. And most people who have roach problems would agree that they have advanced beyond the proper limits. Funny that a word that nominally has nothing to do with roaches includes the word “roach” and an accurate description of what roaches do.
Approach: 1. The act of approaching: the approach of night.
2. To come near or nearer, as in space or time: Spring approaches.
I’m sure we would all prefer that spring approach, rather than roaches. But one cannot deny that this definition describes the six-legged pests perfectly.
Reproach: 3. Disgrace; shame.
Roaches probably don’t feel shame, but you will if you find them in your home. It seems fitting that “roach” plays such an important role in a word with such a negative connotation.
Abroach: 1. Opened or positioned so that a liquid, such as wine, can be let out.
2. In a state of action; astir.
If you’ve ever dealt with them, you know that roaches are always moving. Crawling. Creeping. Stirring. I’ve said too much.
The interesting thing about playing Scrabble or Words with Friends is how you can have a decent five letter word, like ROACH, and with two or three extra letters you can turn it into a great play.
And it helps if you can associate those larger words with their smaller components. Fortunately, roaches are disgusting, creepy, sneaky, and unwelcome. And if you can remember that, then the next time a ROACH shows up in your Scrabble tray, try to add some extra letters to it and go for the kill.
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