By John Marlowe
What goes “ninety-nine, clomp; ninety-nine, clomp”?
A centipede with a wooden leg!
This old chestnut was my introduction to entomology. Entomology is the study of insects. Frequently, the word entomology is confused with the word etymology, which is the study of word origins.
In part, this explains why we have spelling bees.
Knowing the difference is actually of benefit to us men. At a fundamental level, we operate better when confusion abounds.
For instance, when your wife screams, “Eek! A centipede! Where did that come from?”, you can now say, “It comes from the subphylum Myriapoda with elongated metameric features, with one pair of legs per each of the 13 body segments.”
Or, you may simply state, “It is derived from the 17th century French, via the Latin centum, meaning a hundred, and -ped, meaning foot.”
Both answers are correct. Neither answer will appease your wife. You’re still going to have to get out of your recliner, and squash the poor bugger. Still, there’s gratification in being right for a change.
I remember laughing at the centipede joke as a first grader with several friends and my brother at elementary school recess. My brother was 4 years younger than me, at the time –– not that he’s gained any ground since. I’m quite certain the he didn’t even know what a centipede was. I’m also quite certain none of the rest of us could spell it.
Now if the joke had been about wooly worms, instead, every child in America would understand. What child hasn’t had one of those plump, fuzzy fall frost forecasters ball up in his or her hand?
Now, follow the science:
Wooly worms are not really worms at all. They aren’t centipedes, either. They are caterpillars. In fact, some centipedes love to eat caterpillars.
In parts of the Midwest and New England, wooly worms –– the larvae of the Isabella Tiger Moth — are frequently known as wooly bears. And whereas, I can understand why many people mistakenly get worms and caterpillars mixed up, on my worst day, I’d never confuse a worm with a bear. I’m pretty sure wooly bears are just figments of imagination, like Sasquatch or responsible government.
Whether bears or worms, this is the season for the woolies! I see them on rural backroads, crossing from one field to the next.
It bugs me.
Not that I care why wooly worms leave a pretty good corn field to get to one just like it across the road. Actually, I’m impressed that they even know there’s something better over there. Think about it. Considering their wee size, seeing across two lanes of rural roadway, and a fence row or two, is the equivalent of you and me seeing as far as the Sudan from here.
What bugs me is, why do wooly worms always cross the road at a ninety degree angle?
Seriously. Have you ever seen a wooly worm walking DOWN the road? No! It’s always across. Straight across. No slopes, no angles. Never on the bias. Perpendicular every time.
Hey! When it comes to road crossings, no one placed any restraints on the chicken!
I decided to get the low down on the low bodies from the Purdue University Department of Entomology. Sadly, no representative returned my call. I will offer them some wiggle room, however. I called Purdue after office hours, and left a voice mail message. I got nervous leaving my contact information, because I was quite sure the line was bugged.
I wanted to know if they would like to join me in applying for a government grant to study wooly worms. I’ll mark a defined grid on the roadway, about twenty feet long, and just see how many wooly worms DON’T cross the road at ninety degrees.
If I’m right, I’m lobbying the highway department to put up wooly worm crossing signs! We’ve got them for deer and ducks, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen either species cross at a sign. Woolies are nothing if not law abiding.
Nevertheless, I advise caution:
Wooly worm crossing signs will be very small. You might want someone else in the car keeping watch out for the bears.
John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.