Secret Lives of Words: A billion cicadas and a side of fries

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The cicadas are coming and, yes, by the billions! The Cicadoidea superfamily dates back 250 million years and numbers more than 3,000 species. Those soon to magically emerge from their subterranean abodes in the eastern U.S., as many as 1.5 million/acre, and launch into an amorous sing-along are in the genus Magicicada, “magician cicada.”

Often termed “periodical” cicadas, one species in this genus was in 1758 dubbed by Linnaeus septendecim, Latin for the number 17 (think SEPTet/a seven-person musical group and DECennial/an event occurring every DECade). The category was so named for the insects’ habit of dwelling underground for 17 years, nearly their entire life, feeding on fluids from tree roots before returning to the upper world to reproduce and die.

In a miracle of nature, the mature nymphs in the emergent year, nearing the end of their life cycle, tunnel to the surface synchronously, usually in late April-early May, triggered by warming ground temperatures. The nymphs then crawl upward into trees or other vegetation, shed their exoskeletons (exuviae) within hours, and spread their newly-developed, translucent wings. The males, crooning solo or in chorus, then launch into their distinctive song, which with their vast numbers, can be heard from miles away.

      Arising from their subterranean habitat, the 1 to 2-inch long bug-eyed creatures (often confused with locusts, which are related to grasshoppers not cicadas) have just one thing in mind: procreation. The cicada’s loud rhythmical incantation (which inspired the name of the Athens, Georgia, indie folk band Cicada Rhythm), produced by abdominal structures called “tymbals” and ranging as high as 120 decibels (louder than a gas mower), is the male’s courtship call. After mating, the female lays 100s of eggs, typically in the bark of a tree. In six to 10 weeks the nymphs hatch, drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, as deep as eight feet, and there live their lives until re-emerging 17 years later.

The most widespread septendecim habitat in North America, known as Brood X or the Great Eastern Brood and inspiration for Bob Dylan’s song “Day of the Locusts,” ranges from North Georgia to New York. Their last appearance was in 2004 and the next, depending on soil temperatures, is due in the South late this month or in early May (grab your binoculars, earplugs, and the “Cicada Safari” app, available free from the Apple app store or Google play). The insects’ cyclical rituals have been observed and recorded in the U.S. for centuries, by early Native Americans, the Plymouth Colony pilgrims in 1634, and such notables as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (in his “Garden Book”).

But interest in these tiny creatures dates back thousands of years and around the world. Among the ancients, cicadas were revered both for their song, and for their cycle of birth, apparent death, and “resurrection.” The name the Romans gave the insect, Latin cicada (pronounced kih-KAH-duh), was onomatopoetic, mimicking the creature’s characteristic chirp (search “cicada chirping” on YouTube to listen and look, and while there be sure to view the four-minute BBC Earth video “Periodical Cicadas Overrun the Forest”).

In his Iliad, the earliest surviving work of European literature, Homer narrated the response of Troy’s elders to the approach of the Greek princess Helen: “They sat there, on the tower… like cicadas perched up on a forest branch, chirping soft, delicate sounds… their words had wings” (trans. Ian Johnston). For the 8th cent. B.C. Greek poet Hesiod, the cicada song was a harbinger of summer. In his “History of Animals,” Aristotle (4th cent. B.C.) described the insects’ life cycle and saw their rising from the earth as a symbol of immortality. In Greek myth, the dawn goddess Eos prayed to Zeus to grant her Trojan lover Tithonus immortality, but neglected to ask also for eternal youth; as Tithonus endlessly aged, he shriveled, grew ever smaller, and was finally transformed by Eos into a cicada and confined to a cage, where he perpetually babbled and bemoaned his fate.

The 1st-cent. B.C. Roman Lucretius describes the insects “setting aside their smooth cloaks in summer,” a reference to their moulting. Vergil speaks of “raucous” cicadas in the woodlands, and another 1st-century poem describes a hairpin crafted in the form of a cicada, suggesting that the insects were prized for their beauty. For their ecstatic mating songs they were associated with eroticism and the Muses.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (who died while observing, for scientific purposes, the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79) describes cicadas in detail. He mentions their Greek name, achetae (“chirpers”), and rightly remarks that “the males sing, while the females are silent.”

Another point Pliny adds is that the insects were eaten by some in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Even the Parthians (in the area of modern northeastern Iran), who could afford the finest foods, found them delectable. “They prefer the males before coitus,” Pliny observes, “and the females afterwards, as they were fond of their tasty white eggs.”

It turns out that the ancient Greeks too, even Aristotle (maybe hungry after writing about the crispy critters?), dined on cicadas. Flash forward 2,000 years and it turns out that the 17-year Magicicada has long been regarded as a delicacy by our own Onondaga people, an Iroquois nation of upstate New York. Modern-day Malaysians and Pakistanis enjoy the high-protein, low-fat treat too; the Chinese like them deep-fried.

A recent “Patch” column by Deb Belt, “You Can Eat 17-Year Cicadas as They Emerge in Maryland,” recommends serving them with a hot mustard sauce or marinated in teriyaki. Add a side of wontons or fries and a (hefty) cup of rice wine, and, hey, I’d gladly give ‘em a try.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of 60 of these essays, expanded and illustrated with 250 color photos. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.

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