Caterpillage: The Lackeys and Emperors of Matera
Caterpillar. I love the word. Caterpillar. Isn’t it a strange one to pronounce? Here in Matera there are huge moth caterpillars on the Giant Fennel.
It’s a dry landscape of limestone rocks. There’s an azure Italian sky, the sudden swish of an Italian Ruin Lizard disappearing before we’ve seen it, and the scent of herbs. What is that? Thyme? I once sowed dwarf thyme in my Devon garden to cover the ugly cracks between the concrete paving stones. It grew to cover the paving stones entirely. It smelt just like this, only wetter.
The caterpillars on the Giant Fennel are Lackey moth caterpillars:
They are a very striking blue and orange complementary colour combination with the strongest possible colour contrast. Similar to me, their head’s smaller than their backside. Unlike me, they’ve got six real legs and lots of false ones.
When they metamorphose, Lackey moths are hairy, brown and camouflaged and have no hint of the distinctive orange or blue on them.
The word caterpillar is a combination of cat (yes, pussycat) and hairy (think pelt or pile). Catta pilosa was their name in Late Latin. Caterpillars are hairy cats. The suits them. After the Latin word evolved into the Old French word, and then the Normans invaded Britain in 1066, the Middle English name for caterpillar became catyrpel. Norman French words were meaningless in Britain, the land of the conquered, and often took on the meaning and pronunciation of similar sounding but completely different English words. Catyrpel became caterpillar because English people associated the word pel with the Middle English word piller, which means plunderer. That’s piller as in pillage.
I love it here amongst the blooms (English word) and flowers (French word) with the heady scent (French word) and odour (English word) of herbs. It’s so strong that in Old English it would be a stench.
There’s another huge caterpillar. It looks like a species of Emperor Moth:
What’s the Italian word for caterpillar? It’s bruco, plural bruchi. It means browse. Caterpillars; they are hairy cats, pillagers and browsers. They are Lackeys and Emperors.
It’s time to walk across the rough and rocky ground back to the car. The body (English) is weak but the spirit (French) is willing.
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