Inbred southerners put a sting in the tale of a waspish word
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Entomology and etymology have a lot more in common than you might think. Yesterday’s Times Select package included a fascinating article in praise of wasps. Not the acronym but the insect, which journalist Sarah Knapton told us needs to be held in much higher esteem because of the important role it plays in the ecosystem.
Many might wonder whether a bit of pollination here and there is enough to exonerate the creature whose high-pitched whine inspired the Vespa (which means wasp in Italian), but there it is.
Wasps also have other virtues, however. Several varieties prey on spiders, which should please arachnophobes. And how would we describe a person with a tiny waist, were it not for the wasp? Speaking of wasp-like waists, while buzzing around the Internet in a waspish mood I stumbled upon the “critter files” kept by the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology, which has an entire page devoted to the “narrow-waisted solitary wasps of Kentucky”.
It seems tautologous to call a wasp narrow-waisted. I’ve certainly never seen or heard of a wasp with a thick middle. But it is an appealing phrase. If not for the pictures of six-legged stinging insects on the web page I’d have assumed “The Narrow-Waisted Solitary Wasps of Kentucky” was a dating site trying to match-make introverted southern belles who could not find a mate despite their hourglass figures.
Moving from entomology to etymology, here’s an interesting coincidence: The acronym WASP comes from the same parts as those corseted Kentucky critters. WASP – short form for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – has come to be associated with pale polo-playing types who went to private schools (you will know this because they will tell you) but the overtones of imperial snobbery are in fact rather recent.
The original wasps did not drink Pimms and go to garden parties, or perhaps they did but you wouldn’t have been able to recognise them because they’d have been wearing tall white hoods with holes cut out for their eyes.
According to the excellent website Wordhistories.net, one of the first public mentions of what we now call WASPs appeared in a newspaper article published in Kentucky in 1922, in which a Baptist minister praised the Ku Klux Klan almost as vigorously as Sarah Knapton praised the wasp on Times Select yesterday. The KKK, said Dr C Lewis Fowler, was simply trying to protect America as the sacred preserve of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
In the same way as people are now divided in their opinion of the insect whose sting can cause severe pain when stuck into soft human flesh, people back then were not all fans of the segregationist WASPs. Etymology enthusiast Pascal Tréguer, who wrote the entry on Wordhistories.net, goes on to quote from a 1956 article by a more enlightened Kentucky academic who wrote: “The Southerner uses the term WASP to describe the average southerner – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. He is proud of his Anglo-Saxon parentage. He is inbred.”
Then, in 1957, a political scientist decided to relocate the definition of WASPs to the eastern seaboard in the US, where they acquired Ivy League airs and graces along with inherited wealth and yachting shoes. Which is why we now associate WASPs with royalty rather than rednecks.
This may not have seemed like a huge leap at the time, given that WASP was associated with a clinging to colonialism, but as time went on the old-style brand of southerner became more and more mistrustful of the overeducated type of easterner, and the gap between the KKK and J Crew widened.
As Tréguer’s research shows, words and wasps have many similarities: it’s hard to make them stay in one place and they can sometimes sting.
Incidentally, the word “centre” was given to us by wasps (the insects, not the white supremacists who turned to tweed). The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that centre (which was spelled “center” until Samuel Johnson decided it looked better the other way, so don’t blame the Americans for that) comes from the Greek kentron, which meant the sharp point at the end of a wasp’s sting.
I know I’m not the only word nerd who’d like to sting the multitude of writers who say “centre around” instead of “centre on”. There is no such thing as centre around. It makes no sense whatsoever. The centre is in the middle, no matter how you feel about wasps. Centre on that.