October 21, 2013

Case File #013.10.21: TARANTULA

For many people, the mere utterance of the word tarantula raises goosebumps aplenty, most likely because it conjures up mental imagery featuring a vast array of giant arachnids both real and fictional. But when the noun first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1591, it referred not to just any eight-legged terror but only to a specific European wolf spider, Lycosa tarentula. Now, this info probably doesn't surprise you if you're already aware that the English noun is a direct borrowing of the Medieval Latin, that the Latin derived from the Old Italian noun tarantola, and that the Italian evolved from Taranto, the name of a seaport in southern Italy where the aforementioned wolf spiders are commonly found. However, you may be surprised to learn that it wasn't until the late eighteenth century that tarantula was first used in reference to Theraphosidae, the family of large hairy spiders native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. And its use as a generic term for any monstrous spider is an even more recent phenomenon, having first appeared in American English around the middle of the twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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