PHYLLIS HARPER: A cicada by any other name remains a cicada

A cicada year is upon us. Be they good or bad, their bulging red eyes and awkward bodies are ugly, and millions of cicadas gather to caterwaul in a most unpleasant and deafening chorus.

Fawn Grove folks used to call them locusts, the laymen's term for all such flying beasties that have appeared periodically to plague man since Moses was leading the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.

The current 17-year cicada emergence has been featured in national news. Most of the heaviest infestation is north and east of us, but some may appear in our corner of Mississippi. Cicadas, locusts and grasshoppers are kinfolk, perhaps cousins, some more or less harmful or helpful.


That mid-1950s summer was a memorable locust year. I was at Ole Miss and spent most weekends at Fawn Grove, where Grandy's farm was surrounded by deep woods, and our winding access road was lined with trees overlapping above the narrow lane. City folk en route to visit at the farm literally stopped their cars and feared the noise might be mechanical mishaps. Driving to and from Oxford, we found the cicadas were less loud, but open windows made them unwelcome hitchhikers.

A cicada, called a locust or any other name, is loud. Locusts sometimes appear in local areas, such as Eggville-Auburn a few years ago, and still called locusts. Image changing Bob Dylan's song from “Day of the Locusts” to “Day of the Periodical Cicadas.”

The shrill buzz of locusts has been likened to the racket of gears turning in heavy machinery, or the “hollow, eerie sound that flying saucers are supposed to make,” a scientist once said. Never having heard a UFO, nor seen one, I've heard that unforgettable summer locust racket – and I've seen more of them than I want to see again.

Biblical account

It was from Katy Bryson that I learned only the males make noise. Their womenfolk are incapable of making a sound. Menfolk holler all day, stay up till midnight, and probably have to be wakened by vigilant farm roosters crowing at crack of dawn.

We can be glad these cicadas we called locusts are not as bad as those of Moses' day. As the Exodus account says, “The locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and very grievous were they.”

The biblical locusts “covered the face of the earth so that the land was darkened” and “there remained not any green thing in the trees or in the herbs of the fields.” And the Bible says, “Before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall such be.”

The best I can tell from reading, the cicadas we have around here today feed by sucking plant juices, whereas the locusts that appear further west in our country chew up everything from tree leaves to fields of wheat.

Wandering and wondering through reference books, and I may be confused, but cicadas and grasshoppers and locusts and katydids seem to be kin.

A katydid is “any of several large grasshoppers having stridulating organs that produce a large shrill sound.” Grasshoppers are plant-eating insects with hind legs adapted to leaping. A locust is “a migratory grasshopper.” And, as already ascertained from dictionaries, a cicada is commonly called a locust.

Whatever you call them, let the pests swarm on your property, and you'll be glad to tell them good-bye.

Phyllis Harper's column appears each Sunday in the Daily Journal.

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