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May 30, 2002 - Spider-Related Expressions - 2002-05-29

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 30, 2002
Re-broadcast on VOA News Now: June 2, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- etymology meets entomology! The new movie "Spider-Man" inspired us to untangle some spider-related expressions.

RS: Meet a real spider man, not the comic book superhero. Al York is a professor of entomology at Purdue University in Indiana. He teaches a popular course all about our eight-legged friends.

AA: So why are people so fascinated? For one thing, says Professor York, we have a long history together.

YORK: "They live with us. They tend to inhabit homes, probably because there are flies and insects in the homes and the spiders are looking to eat, they spend most of their time trying to acquire a meal, and since they only eat living organisms, they tend to be where those things are. And I think they're obvious too because of the cobwebs, which they form. Cobwebs are generally throughout literature used as symbols of dirt and disuse and abandonment, but we notice those and then we notice the spiders."

AA: Professor York says the word "web," meaning a spider web, spun out of a different meaning originally.

YORK: "The interconnection in web actually meant woven cloth. This was Indo-Germanic and showed up back in the 600s, 700s in print, and then turned into spider web."

RS: "And then into our World Wide Web on our Internet."

YORK: "And then came World Wide Web. And in fact, spiders, of the technical people, spiders are in fact search engines which go out and search the World Wide Web."

AA: "Right, and can you talk a little about why the World Wide Web is called the World Wide Web?"

YORK: "Probably because it's so interconnected, it's reached out to connect all these different units, and you can pass from one unit to another along a particular trunk line and then from there you can go to another, and in fact it's frequently envisioned as a web."

AA: In American English, at least one kind of spider has found a special place. We're talking about a North American spider with a notorious reputation: the black widow.

RS: Yes, its bite is poisonous. But that's not why a woman who kills her husband might be nicknamed a "black widow." Al York describes the habits of the female black widow spider

YORK: "They do eat the male after copulation. They may and they may not, it depends on whether they're hungry. Frequently they do, frequently they don't. But this is not just the black widow. Almost any spider, female, will eat a male after copulation if she can catch him."

AA: "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!" Sir Walter Scott wrote these words in a poem in eighteen-oh-eight. This saying remains popular, even at the risk of sounding cliched.

RS: Same with this classic way to describe being lured: "'Come into my parlor,' said the spider to the fly." As Professor York explains, it's from another nineteenth century verse, this one by the English poet Mary Howitt.

YORK: "It was a children's poem. Now, flies are not lured into spider's webs, but in fact just wander into them, although I'll tell you a real interesting little tale. There is a spider called a bola, spider b-o-l-a. This spider manufactures a chemical which smells like a female moth, and she puts this on a little sticky round drop of silk, extended by a cord form her body.

"Now she spins this bola around and as she does so the smell of the female moth is exuded into the air and it attracts male moths of the same species, in which case then they come up and they get stuck to this bola. But other than that, 'come into my parlor' doesn't fit the biology of the spider at all."

AA: "Last question, have you seen the movie 'Spider-Man'?"

YORK: "No, but I have an old Spider-Man mask that I wear to class. [Laughter]"

RS: Al York at Purdue University. Before we go we’d like to thank listener Abdul Karim Muhammad from Zaria, Nigeria, for sharing a spider-related expression that he hears locally. He says young people use the saying, "what a cobweb reason."

AA: This, he says, means that a reason given is confused and has no meaningful or strong point.

RS: . . . though we suspect that a spider might disagree! But speaking of webs, you'll find Avi and me at, or write to With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Spider-Man" movie theme