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6 June 2011

Monday's Words Sphexish

Well it's June already, and although it's not as hot as it has been, as soon as we get a spell of warm dry weather, no doubt the garden will be invaded by wasps, which brings me to today's word, courtesy of Michael Quinion.

"Scholars of ancient languages will immediately spot that this word has something to do with a wasp, since "sphex" is the name of that 
insect in classical Greek. In more modern times, it has been given 
to a genus of solitary digger wasps. Therein lies a tale.

When such a wasp returns to its burrow with a paralysed cricket to 
feed its grubs, it will leave it at the entrance while it checks 
inside that all is well. It then comes out again and drags its prey 
inside. This gave a naturalist with a cruel streak an idea for a 
bit of behavioural research. He moved the cricket a little way away 
while the wasp was in its burrow. When the it surfaced and found 
its cricket was missing, it searched for it and returned it to the 
entrance to its burrow. It then repeated its search of the inside. 
No matter how many times the cricket was moved, the wasp repeated 
the same steps robotically without working out what was going on.

Douglas Hofstadter recounted the story in one of his Metamagical 
Themas columns in Scientific American in 1982 and coined "sphexish" 
for this unthinking deterministic or pre-programmed behaviour, in 
which the wasp was at the mercy of its instincts and environment. 
In a book derived from his columns, Hofstadter later suggested that 
humans might likewise exhibit such robotic behaviour: "

(I feel sorry for the cricket).

Now there's an idea for a Science Fiction story.  Hang on though. Most days I get up and before I even have my breakfast, immediately switch on my computer and check my emails. Even though I've made a resolution to write for two hours before looking at my emails, I still do it - I just can't bear the thought I might miss something important!  Oh dear that sounds ditsinctly sphexish, doesn't it!

*World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2011. All rights reserved The  original post can be found at:  http://www.worldwidewords.org