I recently came across the word adelgid, which means (per Merriam-Webster) “either of two aphids (genus Adelges) with a white woolly coating that have been accidentally introduced into North America” and (per the OED) “Any of various homopteran bugs constituting the family Adelgidae, closely related to aphids, which feed on the sap of coniferous trees, often form galls, and at certain stages of the life cycle are covered with a white, wool-like waxy secretion.” But my concern is not with the bugs but with the etymology. M-W says:

adelgid ultimately from New Latin Adelges, probably irregular from Greek adēlos unseen

Which struck me as odd. But the OED (entry created December 2011) says something quite different:

Etymology: < scientific Latin Adelges, genus name (J. N. Vallot 1836, in Mém. de l’Acad. des Sci., Arts, et Belles-lettres de Dijon 227); probably < -adelges (in either Phytadelges, family name, or zoadelges, both 1832 in Duméril: see note) + -id suffix³. Compare scientific Latin Adelgidae, family name (1931 or earlier). Compare French adelge (Vallot 1836).
Duméril derives scientific Latin Phytadelges and zoadelges < ancient Greek ἀδελγεῖν to suck, but this form is not attested in Greek; there may be some confusion with ancient Greek ἀμελγεῖν to milk, to suck up (moisture), to drink.

I wish scientists would routinely explain where they get the words they’re coining (and learn the classical languages if they want to use them)!

Incidentally, I found the word while reading the New Yorker — it’s in Ian Frazier’s annual New Year’s “Greetings, Friends!” doggerel. But Frazier either didn’t know how the word was supposed to be pronounced (/æˈdɛldʒᵻd/) or chose to ignore it, because his verse stresses it on the antepenult:

May every forest soon be rid
Of the woolly adelgid.


  1. As a Russian I thought “misspelled aldehyde (альдегид)”, of course.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Adelgid was the member of the Wessex royal family of whom the others did not speak.

  3. Æthelgied “noble song” would actually work pretty well as an Anglo-Saxon name.

  4. May every forest soon be rid
    of the wooly adelgid.

    Yon Hatterman would have us stress
    o’er A del gid
    and I confess
    my hemlock’s now bedecked with wool
    produced by bugs and doggerel.

  5. The correct Greek etymon is ἀθέλγω ‘to suck, draw out’. Some desultory googling suggests that Duméril knew this: he also coined Latin and German versions to go with the Greek and French ‘Phytadelga/ ‘Phytadelges’, viz. Plantisugae and Phytathelgen -note the latter’s transparent formation. But the transcription of theta with a d in the Greek and French versions is idiosyncratic and must have obscured things at some point.

  6. Andy beat me to it. I would only add that in some Greek scripts and typefaces the forms of lower-case delta and theta are not dissimilar, so the origin of the confusion is easy to understand.

    The etymology suggested by M-W, on the other hand, is utterly incomprehensible to me.

  7. To follow up: A quick search at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (an incomparable resource for old publications on botanical and zoological nomenclature) reveals that Louis Agassiz had already complained about this very name in his Nomenclator zoologicus of 1842:

    “Si quando rerum naturalium investigator, in antiquis litteris parum versatus, nova genera condere voluerit, quid impedit quin philologum adeat, eumque consulat, ne nomenclaturam gravet nominibus, quae serius ocius erunt expellenda … Videantur istorum generum auctores ne appellare quidem graecas Iitteras valuisse, cum ξ et ζ, δ et θ, σ et ϛ confundant.”

    (“If a student of natural history who has little training in ancient languages wants to establish new genera, what prevents him from going to a philologist and asking his advice, in order not to saddle the nomenclature with names that will, sooner or later, have to be rejected? … It would appear that the authors of these genera did not even have the ability to name the Greek letters, since they confuse xi with zeta, delta with theta, and sigma with stigma.”)

    Among the examples of such confusion he lists “Adelges = Athelges.”

  8. Very interesting indeed — thanks to both of you for the delta/theta confusion! I’m shocked the OED didn’t pick up on it.

  9. Greeks, Anglo-Saxons, and Latinate Frenchmen all agree, delta must become theta.

  10. David Marjanović says

    I wish scientists would routinely explain where they get the words they’re coining (and learn the classical languages if they want to use them)!

    Zoologists used not to do that, perhaps thinking it was beneath them and their readers, perhaps thinking everyone had dictionaries at home anyway – sometimes the dictionaries were actually a bit off.

    Now they do, and the explanations are routinely wrong, often declaring Latin words to be Greek or vice versa…

    quae serius ocius erunt expellenda

    That’s not even possible.

  11. @David Marjanović: That bit about “names that will, sooner or later, have to be rejected” struck me as very odd as well. However, while Agassiz was a snob, he was not generally someone who talked out of his ass. So he must have had a conception of zoological naming that allowed for the rejection of linguistically ill-formed names. Of course, in the 1840s, there was no international organizations overseeing biological nomenclature,* so I guess some naturalists at the time had rather different ideas about what constituted valid names.

    * Based on global trends in international communication and politics, I would have guessed that the modern standards for nomenclature would have first appeared around 1900 or a little earlier. In fact, Wikipedia informs me that the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature was created in 1895, and the first version of its code was published ten years later.

  12. David Marjanović says

    The “Strickland Code” of 1843 did actually have rules for the transcription of Greek; I don’t know if it provided for the rejection of etymologically malformed names, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. But no code was universally followed until well into the 20th century, and the current code says that practically all etymological infelicities have to be preserved forever.

  13. Was not knowing ancient languages (at least Latin) even an option in Higher Education at that time? The earliest surviving poems by Arthur Rimbaud (that’s a few decades later) are school exercises in Latin verse composition. And Hermann Menge’s “Repetitorium der lateinischen Syntax und Stilistik” (regularly updated until WWI) was written with Gymnasiasten in mind, teenagers who were expected to freely write in Latin (not just translate, as today) if they wanted to pass their Abitur.

  14. quid impedit quin philologum adeat, eumque consulat,

    Так вот ты какой, interdisciplinary research!

  15. “Tres homo sum, ille homo, arbor homo, homo me homo, tres homo, tres homo.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says


  17. Stu Clayton says

    perhaps thinking everyone had dictionaries at home anyway

    In my last semester at UT Austin I had a topology seminar with a visiting German math professor, who later helped me get into the university in Bonn. I asked him to recommend a good German dictionary. His reply: “Oh we don’t use them. Everybody learns all of German vocabulary in the Gymnasium”.

    He later boasted about going off to Brazil to combine business with pleasure, so I didn’t take him seriously on the subject of lexical prowess. He fancied himself as a blond Stecher on the beaches of Rio [Selbstauskunft]. But he did help me, so it just goes to show.

  18. The genus name of the rattlesnake used to be Agkistrodon, but it seems to have been mercifully emended to Ancistrodon.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Nope, it’s still Agkistrodon. “Not to be confused with the proterosuchid archosauriform Ankistrodon.”

    Kentrosaurus and Centrosaurus are two different spiky dinosaurs…

  20. Wow, that’s stupid.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Ancistrodon Wagler, 1830, seems to be an unjustified emendation (and therefore junior objective synonym) of Agkistrodon Palisot de Beauvois, 1799.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Short paragraph on the name Kentrosaurus and why it stands.

    Here is Article 32, which explains why Agkistrodon stands, in particular:

    32.5. Spellings that must be corrected (incorrect original spellings)

    32.5.1. If there is in the original publication itself, without recourse to any external source of information, clear evidence of an inadvertent error, such as a lapsus calami or a copyist’s or printer’s error, it must be corrected. Incorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors.


    Examples. If an author in proposing a new species-group name were to state that he or she was naming the species after Linnaeus, yet the name was published as ninnaei, it would be an incorrect original spelling to be corrected to linnaei. Enygmophyllum is not an incorrect original spelling (for example of Enigmatophyllum) solely on the grounds that it was incorrectly transliterated or latinized.

  23. transcription of theta with a d in the Greek and French versions is idiosyncratic

    Here are Duméril’s original publications of Phytadelges (p. 269) and Zoadelges (p. 265) in French:

    There ἀθέλγω is correctly spelled (insofar as we know the verb).

    But then in later publications, the spelling was carelessly given as ἀδελγῶ:

    I am just wondering if Duméril dredged up the very rare verb ἀθέλγω up from a list of synonyms, as here, in the second entry in the first column, ἀμέλγω. Note that Google Books has read the θ as δ, too.

  24. The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greekt cites only Hesychius for the active forms of ἀθέλγω, but the passive is apparently found in the Hippocratic De humoribus. I once read somewhere that in the first half of the 19th century doctors still had to study all the ancient medical authorities (in the original Greek).

  25. Stephen Carlson says

    ἀθέλγω is attested six times in Greek literature (according to TLG), once in the Hippocratic corpus as ἀθέλγεται (middle-passive), and five times in various lexica defining it. The first-century CE Erotianus cites discussions of the term by earlier authors, all now lost, so it appears that the word lost its currency before Galen.

    On account of similar (or variant?) words ἀθέλβεται and ἀθέλδεται, Beekes, as his wont, refers the word to a substrate origin in Pre-Greek, but Chantraine and Frisk prefer the suggestion of Solmsen 1909 that it had an IE labiovelar, *ἀθελgu̯-ι̯ω, and was later contaminated by ἀμέλγω. I’m skeptical of the Pre-Greek solution but even the other solution attempts to explain the obscure by the more obscure.

  26. ἀθέλγω is attested six times in Greek literature (according to TLG), once in the Hippocratic corpus as ἀθέλγεται (middle-passive), and five times in various lexica defining it.

    In other words, it’s attested once in Greek literature and five times in various lexica defining it. Lexica are not literature.

  27. Stephen Carlson says

    Sensu lato. Are medical texts literature?

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    It is not possible to say, because the handwriting is indecipherable.

  29. Are medical texts literature?

    The point isn’t whether they’re “literary” or not — in this context, of attestations, sure, medical texts are literature. But I don’t see how it makes sense to count lexica that way; there’s a reason the OED puts a miniature zero next to words attested only in dictionaries. Words have to be trapped in the wild.

  30. I would say medical texts are primary sources, lexica are secondary sources. I’m not sure if lexicographers use any other specialized word for this distinction; they do tend to distinguish “literary” (in the sense of written work valued for superior or lasting artistic merit) from “non-literary” sources. John Simpson, Preface to the Third Edition of the OED:

    The Dictionary has in the past been criticized for its apparent reliance on literary texts to illustrate the development of the vocabulary of English over the centuries. A closer examination of earlier editions shows that this view has been overstated, though it is not entirely without foundation. The revised text makes use of many non-literary texts which were not available to the original Victorian readers and their immediate successors, particularly social documents such as wills, inventories, account books, diaries, journals, and letters …

    Medical texts are excellent examples of non-literary primary sources, along with cookbooks and instruction manuals. Much more on that at Charlotte Brewer’s site.

    the OED puts a miniature zero

    That was changed sometime in 2021; it’s now the less-cryptic “Apparently only attested in dictionaries or glossaries” (which often applies only to a specific sense of a word). There’s also sometimes “Recorded chiefly in dictionaries” and “In later use only in dictionaries and glossaries.” (Via searching for “dictionaries” in Definition.)

  31. Stephen Carlson says

    And that’s exactly why I broke out the counts from the TLG search, but I didn’t really expect a pointless peeve on the term ‘literature’.

  32. Stephen Carlson says

    “Tertiary literature” in academic scholarship refers to sources like dictionaries, lexica, and encyclopedias, so there are contexts where the term applies unproblematically. The dividing line is not super strict of course: one person’s tertiary source can be another’s primary source, depending on what the object of study is.

  33. It’s not a “pointless peeve.” I don’t think most people consider “Greek literature” to include lexica, and I think there’s good reason for that. ktschwarz’s primary sources vs. secondary sources is a good way of making the distinction.

  34. Stephen Carlson says

    Well, TLG, the database of Greek texts I searched, bills itself as “A Digital Library of Greek Literature.” Maybe you should take up the issue with them. More seriously, different fields do use the same terminology somewhat differently because different factors are more or less relevant. TLG doesn’t have every Greek text from antiquity, just those that are “literature.” For TLG, the relevant distinction is between literary and documentary sources, and lexica fall on the literary side. But I suppose one more ensconced in English lexicography might slice the salami differently. I appreciate that and it’s good to keep in mind, but I haven’t seen any actual confusion here.

  35. Good points all.

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