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Cock Roach or Cockroach?

If someone asked you if you have a Periplaneta americana problem or were troubled by the Blattella germanica, you might think they were putting you on. But if they asked if you had issues with American cockroaches or German cockroaches, you’d be speaking the same language. Well, actually you’d be speaking what is technically called folk etymology. That’s fancy talk for “made up words.”

We owe the term cockroach to the Spanish who labeled the fast-moving garbage-eating bugs, “la cucaracha,” which means streak bug. The Spanish most likely first encountered la cucaracha in Florida in the early 1500s when the Conquistadors marched in their full metal armor through the hot, humid bug-infested swamps. They were looking for the fountain of youth but found the Palmetto bug instead. Known as the Florida woods cockroach (in Florida), the giant Palmetto bug must have made quite the impression when it released its foul-smelling spray at the explorers.

We don’t know much about the etymology of la cucaracha until English-speaking Americans picked up the term and folkified it into cock and roach. So, is it cock roach or cockroach? Well, the English call male chickens “cocks” and the word “roach” is Latin for red or shining. (Roach is also a genus of fish but let’s not go there.) That means a Rhode Island Red rooster is a roach cock. But there is no such thing as a cock roach. Like cucaracha, it’s a single word meaning. So for the sake of long-suffering English teachers everywhere, let’s keep it simple and sing along to “La Cucaracha” who, as the song says, cannot walk because he lacks a hind leg.

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