An Etymology Rhapsody on Spiracle

By Xah Lee. Date:

yesterday's word-a-day goes:

Generally, mantises protect themselves by camouflage and concealment. … As part of the threat display, some species also may produce a hissing sound by expelling air from the abdominal spiracles.

[Brennan Young] wrote the following in response:

[ spiracles ] [ ] - same root as inspire (inspiration), conspire (conspiracy), respire etc. (latin for breathe)

Fan is a really interesting one. If we disregard the slangish meaning of ‘enthusiast’ (abbreviation of ‘fanatic’), it has something to do with flow, usually of air. It's related to the word ‘vane’ which is very often a ‘weather vane’, a device mounted on tall buildings which indicates the wind direction. The blades of a turbine or windmill may also be called vanes, and a turbine is rather like a fan.

In German and Scandinavian languages there are related words for flags and banners ( Fahne or fane ) which are woven, often embroidered fabric emblems designed to fly in the wind. A ‘bannner ad’ is a long rectangular emblem in the service of e-commerce.

B and V are [ allophone ] [ ] of the same phoneme here, so “banner” and “fan” are very closely related.

Oddly, the Danish word ‘vane’ means ‘habit’ or ‘custom’, which is about not changing, whereas the English word ‘vane’ has an obscure secondary meaning - somebody who is fickle or changeable. How to explain this apparent contradiction? You could say that a fan makes the air move in a particular (habitual) way, or that its movement is constrained to a given axis, whereas the weather vane changes with the wind (because it is constrained). It's always interesting when etymological variations end up having the opposite meaning. (See also “black” and “bleach”).

Sometimes weather vanes are mounted on church spires -  which is an architectural feature, a tall, pointed tower. To ‘spire’ is to start growing, shooting directly upwards. This ‘spire’ is related to ‘sprout’ and probably unrelated to the ‘spir’ in inspiration and spiracles.

Camouflage is apparently a corruption of “chaut moufflet” (French for “hot puff”). If you wanted to distract someone you could blow in his face. Even better with a cloud of dust, or smoke screen, so you can conceal your business. Gregory Bateson pointed out that camouflage is ‘anti-communication’ from an information-theory perspective. Another interesting paradox.

And a puff is a kind of breath too!