On Little Annoyances
Our minds automatically make a connection between the form and sound of a word and what it represents. If the meaning of the word "spider" for example, was the object that we call a rose, then we would hear the word spider and the sensation that it would have upon us would be the suggestion of something soft, delicate and pleasant, rather than... well, a spider. I was thinking of this when considering the word "mosquito" (there have been quire a lot of them around of late). Just the thought of it brings to mind that extremely annoying, high-pitched whine, and induces an overwhelming desire to scratch. It is rather unfair really, as the name is formed from the Spanish word "mosca" meaning fly and the diminutive "ito", which together merely means "little fly", which seems far less bothersome, even rather endearing, and should have been applied to some less vexing creature.
The word "cincinelle" used by the author of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum, the best-known chronicle of the Third Crusade, sounds innocent enough. It does not automatically bring on the desire to itch. But it would have done, it seems, to the the crusaders gathered at Ibelin in 1192 who encountered cincinelles; particularly irritating small flies "like flying sparks" that greatly bothered them. Apparently the whole region was full of them:
"They swarmed around the pilgrims incessantly, stinging their hands, necks, throats, foreheads, faces or wherever their bare skin lay exposed. A burning, swelling immediately followed the sting, so that everyone they stung looked like lepers. They barely succeeded in getting some protection from their troublesome attacks by folding cloths around their heads and necks."*
That description leaves us in little doubt as to what these creatures were, by whatever innocuous name they might have been known at the time.
*quotation from The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. A Translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, trans. Helen J. Nicholson, Ashgate, 1997, p. 322.