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What Does 'Cicada' Mean? 7 Fun Facts About These Creepy Critters

Periodic cicadas emerge from the ground every 13 or 17 years, depending on their lifecycle. We describe these insects using a curious vocabulary, from the Roman numerals we use to designate their yearly broods to the magical name we give their genus.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read

If you live in the northeastern United States, you are undoubtedly experiencing a cicada invasion this month! “Brood X”—with their chubby black bodies, big red eyes, and translucent wings—are covering the ground from Georgia to New Jersey, and as far west as Indiana.

With that in mind, today we’re sharing a few fun facts about the language of cicadas.

1. 'Cicada' is a Latin word meaning 'tree cricket'

That word first appeared in the 14th century and has existed unchanged ever since. However, cicadas aren't actually crickets! Cicadas belong to the insect order Homoptera; crickets belong to Orthoptera. “Homoptera” is a mashup of the Greek words for “same” and “wing.” In other words, the wings of cicada look the same from the base to the tip—clear and lacy all the way down. This is opposed to Heteroptera insects, whose wings are leathery at the bottom but quite thin at the top. 

2. Cicadas are not crickets, but they are also not locusts!

Nonetheless, many people call periodical cicadas “17-year locusts” or “13-year locusts.” In fact, Bob Dylan’s song “The Day of the Locusts” was inspired by his hearing cicadas in the grounds outside Princeton University, where he was receiving an honorary degree. Here’s part of his song:

And the locusts sang off in the distance

Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody

Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance

Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singin' for me

Those cicadas, which emerged in 1970, were the direct ancestors of the 2021 brood we hear today! They’ve emerged every 17 years since 1970, appearing in 1987, 2004, and now in 2021. 

3. These periodical cicada belong to the lyrically named genus Magicicada

This pairs the Greek word mágos, meaning “magician,” with the Latin word “cicada.”

According to Greek mythology, cicadas used to be music-loving men. They were so taken up with singing that they forgot to eat and died. To honor them, the Muses turned them into insects who would sing continuously, without food or drink, from the moment of their birth to the moment of their death. Once they died, the cicada-men would report back to the Muses, letting them know which  people of the earth have honored the various Muses—and which have not.

By the way, the genus Magicicada includes seven different species, all with their own delightful names, from Magicicada sependecim to Magicicada cassini. (“Sependecim” means “seventeen”; “cassini” is simply the name of an ornithologist, John Cassin, whom the species is named after. 

4. In addition to these 7 species, there are 148 more!

Many of them also have evocative names, including the Dog-day Cicada, the Lyric Cicada, the Scissor-grinder Cicada, and the Hieroglyphic Cicada. 

5. When cicada first emerge from their shells, they are the color of pale cream, with two black dots on their shoulders.

They’re soft and vulnerable, and they remain so for several days, until their new exoskeleton hardens.

This fragile phase is called the “teneral” stage of cicada development, from the Latin word “tenen,” meaning soft. The area where the black spots appear is called the “pronotum”—that’s “pro,” meaning “before,” and “notum,” meaning back. In other words, the spots appear behind the head—and before the back. 

These spots, by the way, contain a pigment that slowly spreads through the body of the cicada as it hardens. Thus, by the time it’s crunchy, it’s also a dark brownish black.

6. The cicadas emerging in 2021 are part of Brood X

You see, different batches of cicadas are labeled using Roman numerals. In Roman numerals, “X” means “10,” and we’re on Brood 10 this year. This one is also known as the “Great Eastern Brood” … even though it’s neither the easternmost nor the largest of the broods! That distinction belongs to Brood II, the East Coast Brood, set to emerge again in 2030.

7. Groups of male cicadas clustered together are called 'choruses'

Groups of male cicadas are called choruses because they group together in bunches and sing, alternating their songs of courtship with short flights until they attract interested females. The word “chorus,” of course, goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where it referred to a band of singers and dancers who would perform in dramas and religious festivals. 

In short, whether or not cicadas really used to be human men, they certainly perform a chorus for us on these hot summer evenings. And Brood X will do so every 17 years. 

References

Bob Dylan Official Website. Day of the Locusts. Accessed June 2, 2021.

Cicada Mania website. Brood X. Accessed June 2, 2021.

LeVen, Pauline. Society for Classical Studies website. Mythologies of the Voice: Plato’s Cicadas and the Nature of the Voice. Accessed June 2, 2021.

Marlatt., C.L. The Periodical Cicada. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1898. Accessed June 2, 2021.

National Geographic website. Cicadas, facts and photos. Accessed June 2, 2021.

Ortho Society website. How to Recognize Crickets, Katydids, and Cicadas

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Cicada, Chorus, Brood. Available by subscription, accessed June 2, 2021.

Song of Insects website. Cicadas. Accessed June 2, 2021.

University of Connecticut. Cicadas. Accessed June 2, 2021.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Periodical Cicadas Are Coming Soon. Accessed June 2, 2021.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.