When names for cockroaches reflect national rivalries

Poles might have francuzi (“Frenchies”) in their cupboards, while Rhaeto-Romance speakers in Switzerland could have a sclaf (“Slav”) or two. 


In Eastern Europe, historic rivalries between nations can be traced through a country’s word for “cockroach.”  

There are more than 4,000 species of cockroach, but only a few of them like to live with humans and eat our food. English speakers tend to call the most common ones “German cockroaches,” not to disparage Germans, but because Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus happened to be presented with a specimen from Germany in 1767 and dubbed it Blattella germanica

The larger ones are American cockroaches (Periplaneta americana), Croton bugs (there was an evidently memorable infestation around Croton, New York, in 1842), palmetto bugs (a wonderful euphemism), or waterbugs, as they prefer damp areas. 

They are neither German nor American, however, having originated in Southeast Asia and Africa, respectively, and hitchhiked around the world with human hosts. 

In Czech, Croatian, and Macedonian, a cockroach is some version of bubašvaba (“Swabian bug”) or švaba (“Swabian”), as in “I turned on the light and a bunch of Swabians scurried under the bed.” Swabian seems like an oddly obscure term to choose, but a Czech etymological dictionary explains that this might have been a passive-aggressive response to the German-speaking Habsburg rulers who suppressed the Czech language in the 17th century. A Swabian (Schwabe, in German, švaba in Czech) comes from a region of Germany that produced many powerful nobles, and it sounds a lot like Schabe, German for “cockroach.” By turning their rulers into roaches, Czechs signaled their disdain – and resistance.   

A Russian term for roach – prusaki (“Prussians”) – takes aim at a different part of Germany. Folk etymology holds that returning Russian soldiers brought them back from Prussia after fighting there during the Seven Years’ War, but it is equally likely to have been an analogy – soldiers swarming over your land and eating your food might very well remind you of cockroaches. Latvian and Belarusian also use prusaki.

It’s not just the Germans who have eponymous insects. Croatian, Serbian, and Czech people also use bubarus (“Russian bug”). Finland, which is geographically near Russia but its language is linguistically unrelated, has russakka, while Austrian slang for roach is also rus.

Polish people might have francuzi (“Frenchies”) in their cupboards, while those who speak Rhaeto-Romance in the mountains of Switzerland and Italy could have a sclaf (“Slav”) or two. 

The Eastern European cockroach exchange is a vivid way of looking at past tensions between these countries.

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