Cathy Kearney’s CBC News story about crow behavior is interesting in other respects, but its LH relevance is in the word “anting”:

To experts, anting is something of a mysterious behaviour where birds rub insects, usually ants, on their feathers and skin. Some birds will sit still on an anthill and patiently allow the creatures to crawl freely through their feathers. At other times, they have been seen to pick the ants up with their beaks and rub themselves with the tiny insects. Sensing a threat, the ants shoot a spray of formic acid from their abdomens or anal glands, which is absorbed into the bird’s body and acts as a natural insecticide.

I love the English language’s relentless verbing, but I never would have thought of “ant” as a candidate. The OED has an anting entry:

The action of birds in rubbing on their plumage ants or other insects that secrete acrid juices; also, a similar action of birds with various other objects (see quot. 1959 for ant vb. at Derivatives).

1936 Jrnl. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 38 631 Dr. Stresemann suggests the use of a special term for this ‘rubbing in’ process..which may be translated into ‘anting’,—e.g. a bird ants itself or its feathers, even when objects other than ants..are used in the process.
1944 Ibis July 404 Some birds..practise ‘anting’ more or less consistently, while others of related species do not ‘ant’ at all.


ant v. [as a back-formation] (trans. and intr.) to act in this way.
1944 [see main sense].

1959 Observer 1 Mar. 19/4 Starlings and rooks will ‘ant’, without ants, on smoking chimney-pots. Tame birds will ant with matches or cigarette ends.

The etymology is “< ant n.¹ + -ing suffix¹, after German einemsen (E. Stresemann 1935, in Ornith. Monatsber. XLIII. 138).” I wonder how other languages express the concept?


  1. I’m not aware of an Arabic word for this concept, but Algerian Arabic does allow “ants” (nməl) to be verbed: nəmməl means “to go numb, to get pins and needles”. Apparently (so Google informs me) the verb also exists in Maltese as nemmel “to abound in ants; to have a tingle”.

  2. Nice! What’s the etymology of Arabic نملة? Wiktionary doesn’t say.

  3. In Classical Arabic, apparently it can also be verbed, with a variety of different meanings: namula “(of a place) to abound in ants; (of a limb) to go numb; (of a woman or horse) to not stay put; (of food) to be ant-eaten”, nammala “to mend (a garment)”… and apparently that isn’t even exhaustive, but I’ll stop here. I suppose it’s possible some of these are just coincidentally similar.

  4. What’s the etymology of Arabic نملة?

    It seems to be proto-Semitic: cp. Akkadian namālu. I can’t easily trace it further back than that.

  5. Good enough for me! And I’m sure it has meanings related to camels and dates, like all Arabic words.

  6. Btw, if there isn’t already a word for what these birds do in Arabic, I propose استنمل istanmala.

  7. David L. Gold says

    Hebrew נמלה (nemala), Arabic نملة, and Akkadian namālu are presumably cognates presumably pointing to a common origin in Proto-Semitic, as Lameen suggests.

  8. For Russian, I propose омуравить or (for extra Church Slavic impressiveness) омравить; compare озолотить ‘to gild.’ Russian муравей ‘ant,’ incidentally, is remade from *моровей (from PSl. *morvi-) under the influence of мурава ‘grass, sward.’

  9. A post with both etymology and entomology, thank you, Languagehat! Our front yard is pretty much one big anthill — no wonder birds love our yard so much.

  10. David L. Gold says

    Another Semitic language with a related word is Mehri (no-umil ‘ant’).

  11. “Formication” was already taken.

  12. What’s the etymology of Arabic نملة?

    There is a full list of cognates here:

    However, the East Semitic status of Akkadian namalu, namlu is problematic. A.J Militarev and L. Kogan (2005), Semitic etymological dictionary. 2: Animal names, p. 214, have this note about nam(a)lu:

    Treated as a WS loanword in the [Chicago Assyrian Dictionary], which is possible: whereas the O[ld] B[abylonian] attestations are limited to personal names, the relevant Amarna passage is written almost entirely in Canaanite (EA 252.16: kī namlu tumḫaṣu lā tikabbilu u tanšuku qāti amēli ša yimaḫḫašši ‘if one strikes an ant, does not it fight and sting the hand of the man who struck it?’, cf. Albright 1943 31, Hess 1993 97ff.). Conversely, von Soden does not explicitly define n. as a WS borrowing, possibly because of its supposed attestation in the SB physiognomic omen Kraus Texte 22 IV 1 (summa šuprāṣu na-ma-li malâ “if his nails are full of n.” ). According to CAD, a different lexeme is used in this passage which “probably refers to cracks or spots on the nails”.

    There is also Akkadian lamattu (which would reflect an earlier *lamantum), equated with the usual Akkadian word for “ant”, kulbābu, in a lexical list. This is especially interesting beside Eblaite lamanum, possibly “ant”. However, here too, people have suspected a West Semitic loanword, although there is nothing similar in the nearby West Semitic languages. (It recalls Akkadian variant forms like lurmû, lurimtu, lurindu, lurinnu, lurimāˀu beside nurmû “pomegranate”, cf. Sumerian nurma, Hurrian nuranti, Hittite nurati-, Hebrew רִמּוֹן rimmôn, Syriac ܪܘܡܢܐ‎ rummānā, Arabic rummān.)

    To satisfy the curiosity of the adventurous, I’ll add that Militarev offers some possible cognates for elsewhere in Afroasiatic, namely in Chadic (Daba nìmī “termite qui vole” (if not from Arabic نلة nimma “louse”, itself perhaps assimilated from *nimla?); Jegu lólmó “Ameise”; Bura lumà ‘termite’ Chibak limà, West Margi limà, Ngwaxi limà Higi-Kamale lumà, all “termite”, Munjuk lumiy “termite ailé”; Gude má-lə̀mə “type of insect (size of louse, lives in sand, stings)”) and Cushitic (Somali lulumo “larvae of mosquito, tadpole”; Arbore limmε, Tsamai ʔilmate “termite”).

  13. Thanks very much!

  14. Correction: نمة nimma “louse” (as Wehr-Cowan define it). Sorry about that. I am typing mostly by voice recognition and cutting and pasting because of an injury.

  15. I honestly don’t know how you do all that in your condition. I hope you get better soon!

  16. Stu Clayton says

    The etymology is “< ant n.¹ + -ing suffix¹, after German einemsen

    TIL that Emse is an older word for “ant”. DWDS+Grimm give me every reason (short of actually understanding the details) to believe that ants were called Emsen because they are emsig = industrious. One could be forgiven for initially imagining that industriousness was named after ants, but no.

    emsig is a Bog Standard word, Emse ain’t, these days. Germans are reputed to be industrious but, as far as I can tell, ants have regained the crown. Turkish ants. karınca.

    A kid who has “ants in his pants” can be called a Zappelphillip.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Karıncalar, that would be.

  18. Yes, Xerîb, how do you type in Latin script with diacritics, plus IPA, plus Arabic, with voice recognition? You’re working as hard as an ant.

  19. Wiktionary has….

    Esperanto: formikumo
    French: formicage (fr) m
    German: Einemsen n
    Japanese: 蟻浴
    Norwegian: Nynorsk: maurbad
    Polish: mrówkowanie (pl) n, kąpiel mrówkowa (pl) f
    Portuguese: comportamento/ação de formicar-se
    Russian: муравление (ru) (muravlenije)
    Serbo-Croatian: mravljenje n
    Spanish: baño de hormigas m

    I never cease to be amazed at which words show up in Serbo-Croatian in Wiktionary, and what common words are missing.

  20. Thanks!

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    You’re working as hard as an ant.

    Consider her ways, and be wise.

  22. Emse ain’t, these days

    Apparently it never was. According to Wolfgang Pfeifer’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen (1995): “Ein aus mundartlichen Formen entwickeltes Emse versucht Oken (1815) vergeblich in die Literatursprache einzuführen.” Goethe repeatedly uses the Hessian form Imse in the Second Part of Faust. Many people don’t realise that Goethe spoke with a heavy Frankfort accent; the Standard German pronunciation used in most historical movies and such is anachronistic.

  23. French has a verb “fourmiller” which can mean “to go numb” (referring to a body part), but which can also mean “To be present and active in large numbers” (A related noun, “fourmillement”, has both meanings).: A sentence such as “Ce professeur fourmille d’idées folles” is hard to render into English: I would translate it as “This professor keeps having a huge number of crazy ideas”.

    Does any other language have a derivative of “ant” with this sort of meaning? Ants, when observed by us humans, are typically active and present in groups, so I would be surprised if similar such verbs and adjectives derived from the noun for “ant”, with the meaning “To be present and active in large numbers” were unknown in languages other than French.

  24. “This professor is swarmed by crazy ideas”?

  25. A sentence such as “Ce professeur fourmille d’idées folles” is hard to render into English: I would translate it as “This professor keeps having a huge number of crazy ideas”

    “This professor is full of crazy ideas” would be simpler.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    He’s bugged out.

  27. January First-of-May says

    Russian: муравление

    That’s probably what I would have guessed. Is the verb муравиться?

  28. Hat: “Fourmiller” implies large numbers of something, and activity relating to these somethings: “Fourmiller d’idées folles” and “Avoir plein d’idées folles” are not interchangeable: Both mean that one has a lot of crazy ideas, but the former implies that one keeps having new crazy ideas or that one is continuously toying with/modifying said ideas; the latter carries no such implication: if a professor has crazy ideas and these have remained unchanged, with no new crazy ideas being added to them, over decades, you could say that the professor “a plein d’idées folles” but certainly not that the professor “fourmille d’idées folles”.

    (Of course, I do trust that all recognize that these example sentences are for illustrative purposes only, the very notion of professors having crazy ideas, and of these remaining unchanged over decades, is so far removed from reality that I perhaps should have chosen a more realistic example sentence: “Ce royaume fourmille de dragons”, let’s say -A sentence which implies that the dragons are growing in number, actively doing within the Kingdom what dragons do -fighting knights, barbecuing cattle, and the like- or both).

    Not being an L1 English speaker, I am not quite certain what to make of Y’s “This professor is swarmed by crazy ideas”: My impression is that this sentence too needn’t imply that the ideas in question are either being continuously modified or that new crazy ideas are continuously being added to the mix. If this impression of mine is wrong, then this would be a better translation.

  29. From the web:
    “I have noticed in the past that the first thing that happens to me when I pick up a notepad is that I get swarmed by ideas and thoughts.”
    “I’m beset by ideas, swarmed by ideas, hived, hounded. They pop into my head. They arrive on a piece of trash blown down the street or seep from the edge of a shadow.”

    Would fourmiller work in those contexts?

    In general it implies something unpleasant or bothersome, as a swarm of locusts or stinging insects might be:
    “Since receiving the title, the New Jersey native has been swarmed with public speaking and social media requests.”
    “The Biden administration has been swarmed with journalists’ complaints about their access to border facilities.”

  30. Y: No, “fourmiller” does not have any unpleasant connotations, and thus I would not use it to translate “to swarm” in any of your sentences. The verb “essaimer”, which is another French verb used to translate English “to swarm” (With a corresponding noun, “essaim”, which matches the meaning of the English noun “swarm” rather closely), likewise lacks any such unpleasant connotations.

  31. Do French idées essaimer*? Do French bees fourmiller?
    Russian has calqued this idom – or cliché (from the same language where it borrowed “cliché”, I think): “in my head ideas are swarming”, usually like this. But the verb in question is specifically for what bees (and maybe dragons) do…

    *oops. French does not have the verb form to be used with “do”. Both -er and -ent sound wrong:(

  32. Thanks Xerîb – that’s a great link!

    “Ce royaume fourmille de dragons” – This kingdom is crawling with dragons. (or swarming)

    Wikipedia claims the Arabic for “anting” is tanammul تنمّل, but all the attestations on Google seem to derive from Wikipedia, so who knows…

  33. How is Jibbali nīẑín a reflex of PWS *nam(a)l?

  34. To answer myself, ẑ (i.e. [ɮ]) is an allophone of /l/; /m/ is lost intervocally in Jibbāli (as is /b/); -in is a suffix, probably a fossil diminutive.

  35. ‘Ce professeur fourmille d’idées folles’ -perhaps ‘is buzzing with crazy ideas’.

  36. January First-of-May says

    This kingdom is crawling with dragons. (or swarming)

    Russian would probably use кишит, as in это королевство кишит драконами. Using роятся (which I believe is the verb that drasvi referred to) invites mental images comparable to Looking Glass’s elephants.

  37. David L. Gold says

    How about this? This professor’s brain is teeming with crazy ideas.

    Etienne. You seem to be saying that fourmiller is not implicitly negative. If so, offer a sample sentence without words such as folles, which is implicitly negative.

    Teem with… is compatible with both positive and negative complements:

    This school is teeming with bright students.
    This room is teeming with vermin.

  38. John Emerson says

    “Crawling with crazy ideas”.

  39. marie-lucie says

    Yes, fourmiller is not what ants or other insects do, it is something which affects a group or a place where a group might be located, which recalls the frantic, apparently random activity of a disturbed colony of ants. So the meaning is similar to that of teem, except that the meaning of this word does not seem to arise from a concrete phenomenon, so perhaps crawl is a better example. I agree that fourmiller does not have a positive or negative connotation by itself, but it may acquire one from the context.

    David Gold: here is a sample sentence:

    “Avant et après un grand match international, les rues qui entourent le stade fourmillent de monde”.
    Before and after a top level international game, the streets around the stadium are crawling with people.

    (Whether “fourmiller” here has a positive or negative connotation would depend on the speaker’s emotional reaction to crowd sport spectacles),

  40. Stu Clayton says

    … sample sentence without words such as folles, which is implicitly negative.

    The ‘net is crawling with them:

    # Le Centre-Ville fourmille de gens, c’est tellement vivant!!! #

    # Ce guide fourmille donc d’instructions concrètes pour construire ou faire construire un snowpark présentant un haut standard de sécurité. #

    I must admit, however, that I have days where gens of any kind implicitly get on my tits. As to instructions concrètes, nobody likes to be told what to do. I suspect that implicit negativity, on a given day, is due more to what side of the bed you got up on, rather than to lexical constraints.

  41. Does any other language have a derivative of “ant” with this sort of meaning?

    myrornas krig
    Literally “war of the ants” or “battle of the ants”, from the tiny moving dots that are seen.


    Random, usually monochromatic, video noise (typically caused by a white noise input signal to a television, often due to lack of reception); static, noise, snow

  42. Hebrew, alas, has אנטינג enting. The Academy hasn’t gotten to it yet. Some spell it in English without bothering with a Hebrew transliteration.

    If it were up to me I’d call it הִתְנַמְּלוּת hitnamlut. It sounds like הִתְעַמְּלוּת hit’amlut ‘physical exercise, PE’.

  43. There’s a Wikipedia entry on anting, with plenty of translations: Arabic تنميل tanmīl, German Einemsen, Russian муравление, Ukrainian Мурашіння, plus some ‘ant bath’ compounds.

  44. I coincidentally just saw “anting” a day or two ago, in an article making fun of David Foster Wallace’s style:

    the relevant section:

    “Or a withdrawal chapter where a cross-dressing junkie imagines “ants formicating up and down his arms’ skinny length.” Care to guess what “formicating” actually means? Anting. The guy’s being harassed by anting ants…”

  45. I love bilious reviews like that.

  46. Someone has to mention this.

  47. Lars Mathiesen says

    That is from annar tveggja = ‘other of two’. No ants there. (Hellström adduces a sense “one” of annarr which only seems to occur in this compound, I don’t think that’s necessary). Swedish uses antingen … eller … = ‘either … or …’ (Danish cognate enten … eller …).

  48. ktschwarz says

    ‘Ce professeur fourmille d’idées folles’ -perhaps ‘is buzzing with crazy ideas’.

    I like that one. I also like “boiling (over)”, “bubbling (over)”, or “fermenting”. Those could all be positive or negative: he’s boiling over with poetic inventions, or with conspiracy theories. However, they don’t work so well for translating les rues qui entourent le stade fourmillent de monde, perhaps because the visual image of bubbles includes vertical motion and also bubbles appearing out of nowhere, unlike people in the street.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    I love bilious reviews like that.

    It is enjoyable, though it perhaps would be yet more devastating if it were not quite so over the top (the Secret History problem*.)

    I’ve never had the least desire to read Infinite Jest, but if someone had told me before that the main problem with it was rampant Calvinism …

    *Procopius’ one, not Donna Tartt’s. (That has different problems, although on reflection it is quite over the top.)

  50. “Russian would probably use кишит, as in это королевство кишит драконами. Using роятся (which I believe is the verb that drasvi referred to) invites mental images comparable to Looking Glass’s elephants.”

    Yes, it was a joke. But I did not think about кишеть. [a place] кишит with [creatures]
    Unlike роиться (рой “hive”) this one is often applied to undersirable (and moving) small creatures, but also to (desirable) fish and I think I have seen it applied to ideas. The dictionary also has examples with woodcocks and people in the street.

  51. William Boyd says

    Pondering Eric’s wiki note about Portuguese (“…de formicar-se”) and Spanish (“baño de hormigas”), I wondered, “Why not ‘hormigarse’ in Spanish?”

    Well, an internet search on “hormigarse” yielded one hit. But searching again on “baño de hormigas,” produced scads including one from”Glosario de ornitologia” [] as well as “Baño de hormigas,” a short story from the collection “Relatos del café de otoño” by Víctor Hernández Regalado.

  52. In the Etymological Dictionary of Slavic Lnaguages, part 19, pages 241-250 are teeming with ants.

    I have not inspected all of their forms yet, but the page 244 has a verb:

    morviti(sę): сербохорв. мра́вити ‘вызывать мурашки; вызывать беспокойство’ (РСА XIII, 121), в.-луж. mrowić ‘копошиться, кишеть’ (Pfuhl 383, Трофимович 127), н.-луж. mrojś se ‘кипеть (о муравьях); кишеть как муравьи’ (Muka Sł. I, 939), польск. mrowić się ‘роиться, сновать, кишеть, как муравьи’ (Warsz. II, 1059), словин. mrov́iс są ‘кишеть’ (Lorentz. Pomor. I, 514), mȧ̃rvjǐc ‘трясти, знобить’ (Lorentz. Slovinz. Wb. I, 606), mrov́iс są ‘кишеть’ (Sychta III, 126), marv́iс są ‘злиться; роиться, кишеть’ (Sychta III, 53).

    Гл. на -iti от *morvь (см.)

  53. A partial translation to English (I will link some words to Wiktionary rather than translate them. They are translations from other dictionaries anyway…)

    FYLOSC мра́вити ‘to cause мурашки*; to make one feel uneasy’ (РСА XIII, 121),
    Upper Sorbian. mrowićкопошиться, кишеть’ (Pfuhl 383, Трофимович 127),
    Lower Sorbian: mrojś se ‘to boil (about ants ); кишеть like ants’ (Muka Sł. I, 939),
    Polish mrowić się ‘to hive, сновать, кишеть, like ants’ (Warsz. II, 1059),
    Slovincian mrov́iс są ‘кишеть’ (Lorentz. Pomor. I, 514), mȧ̃rvjǐc ‘to shake, to hit with chills’ (Lorentz. Slovinz. Wb. I, 606), mrov́iс są ‘кишеть’ (Sychta III, 126), marv́iс są ‘to be angry; to hive, кишеть’ (Sychta III, 53).

    An -iti verb from *morvь (vid.)
    *Мурашки is “little ants” literally. It refers to good bumps or to the associated sensation caused by fear or cold. Connecting the South Slavic мра́вити with Russian мурашки is an interpretation by a Russian complier. South Slavic speakers can confirm this interpretation.. or not. There is also English “antsy”.

  54. As for муравление, Russian biologists could have borrowed it from a verb муравить, in turn from мурава (EDSL, 20,192.)

  55. “Муравель” reminded me the old joke
    Наполеон косил траву, поляки пели журавлями
    на поле он косил траву, поля кипели журавлями

    (“Napoleon was mowing the grass, Poles sang like cranes”, “In the field he was mowing the grass, fields were boiling with cranes”)

  56. That’s great!

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    AFAIK Kusaal and its close relatives have “no word for ant” (in the sense that there are words for different species, but no overarching word for all types of ant.)

    I’ve no doubt that deep anthropological conclusions can be drawn from this. Well, perhaps a leetle doubt.

    The ants whose ways we are enjoined to imitate in Proverbs 6:6 are salinsa’as in the Kusaal, presumably the same as Mooré salensaase “petites fourmis noires (espèce)” (according to Urs Niggli’s dictionary) and Mampruli silinsaasi “sugar ants” (according to Naden, but that actually seems to be a European species.) There doesn’t seem to be much good ethnoentomology about. Where is Roger Blench when you need him?

  58. Stu Clayton says

    I forget, is there an overarching Eskimo word for “snow” ? There was something deep derived from that (or its ¬), but I also forget what that was. It had to do with tapirs and wharves.

  59. Many years later, as he fell off the wharf, the tapir was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover snow.

  60. I can see how scary army ants would deserve a category of their own, and not be held as a model of Christian behavior.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know about that. Crusader ants, maybe? Still, the author of Proverbs seems to have more civilian virtues in mind (not to say positively bourgeois. Protestant work ethic stuff.)

  62. “И неприятности любви В лесу забавны и милы: Ее кусали муравьи, Меня кусали комары.” (Глазков)

    “deep anthropological conclusions”
    They have more than one ant species in Ghana.

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    They seem to have more than one ant species practically everywhere

  64. Where’s David Marjanović? I was expecting him here.

  65. They seem to have more than one ant species practically everywhere …

    I’ll say.

    A first assessment has been made of arboreal ants collected during 1982 and 1983 in four types of forest at the Tambopata Reserved Zone, Peru. The sample, comprising over 100,000 workers in 1707 separate species series, was found to contain 40 genera and an estimated 135 species, the most diverse local arboreal ant fauna ever recorded. A large portion of the diversity was caused by the occurrence of many species in close proximity. For example, a single tree yielded 26 genera and 43 species, approximately equal to the entire ant fauna of all habitats in the British Isles.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    There’s an Antwiki! Cool!

    (In retrospect, well, yes, of course there’s an Antwiki.)

  67. A bunch of people, like this one, had an Aunt Vicky.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Wow! There are swarms of them!

  69. Care to guess what “formicating” actually means? Anting. The guy’s being harassed by anting ants…”

    This would be a smart criticism if it were correct, but it isn’t. ‘Formicate’ means to move around in the manner of ants. ‘Anting’ is the avian practice of rolling around in ants to pick up some formic acid. Ants do not indulge in anting.

    I love bilious reviews like that.

    I detest bilious reviews like that. DFW wrote more poignantly about depression and obsession than any other writer I know of. Roman Glazov (who he?) evidently prizes sophomoric nit-picking above actual thought.

  70. Per the OED, the verb formicate is used only in its original sense, ‘to crawl like ants.’ The derived noun, formication, is used only in the imaginary sense, ‘an abnormal sensation as of ants creeping over the skin.’ That is interesting.

  71. J.W. Brewer says

    [obligatory allusion to the ant in Canto LXXXI]

  72. But:

    I. To creep or crawl like ants: venarum inaequali aut formicante percussu, Plin. 7, 51, 52, § 171.— *
    II. To feel like the creeping of ants, μυρμηκιζω: “donec formicet cutis,” Plin. 30, 13, 41, § 120.

  73. Bathrobe says

    I was waiting for AntC to join the conversation….

  74. …Portuguese (“…de formicar-se”) and Spanish (“baño de hormigas”), I wondered, “Why not ‘hormigarse’ in Spanish?”

    Nice doublet in Portuguese: formicar-se “to ant (of birds)” and formigar “to formicate, itch; to swarm, teem”.

    Spanish hormiguear does exist, corresponding in sense, though not exactly in formation, to Portuguese formigar:

    There is also hormigante

    beside formicante

Speak Your Mind