I met my first undomesticated cockroach shortly after I moved into a run-down apartment in the “Sixth Borough” area of New Jersey.1 The encounter was rather anticlimactic. I’d flipped on the bathroom light, and no sooner thought Is that a cockroach? before it disappeared under the radiator. I felt slightly let down.
For a couple days, I talked about the roach to anyone who would listen. Having grown up in a rural town where cow-tipping is still an attractive pastime, I believed that the roach in my bathroom was a sign that I’d been inducted at long last into city life. And who knew it would be so easy? The cockroach became like the Egyptian scarab to me—creepy and uncomfortable, but a symbol of hope nevertheless.
Unfortunately, if my life were a B movie about swarms of killer roaches, this would be the part where the voice-over says: Little did she know . . .
Cockroach is an English word; according to the OED, the word was first recorded in explorer John Smith’s journal in 1624. “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung [sic(k!)].” Apparently, English explorers thought cacarootch was as itchy on the tongue as a mouthful of stale hard-tack. So, in a well-intentioned attempt to simplify translation, they snapped the Spanish cucaracha in two, each piece being smelted and recast into English morphemes. Caca became cock (for male chicken), and rootch became roach, the familiar name of a freshwater fish. In search-engine terms, this means cucaracha inspired the statistically improbable phrase rooster-fish. [End Page 69]
But that’s not where the story ends. Sometime before 1848, the cockroach was linguistically castrated, having had cock removed for purposes of conversational propriety. Apparently, the rooster-fish had gradually insinuated itself into the minds of repressed Victorians as the penis-fish. The logic is brain-numbing. And we’re not even talking about marijuana yet.2
Most websites and dictionaries trace cockroach back to cucaracha and stop: the road drops off, the brambles close in. But where did cucaracha come from? That question is a bit more difficult. Some sources I found said cuca is old Spanish for caterpillar, but other sources pointed out that caca is familiarly used to mean poop. To track down racha, I was able to get in touch with a linguist who specializes in Spanish, but he came to the same conclusion I did: racha is a dead end. At this point—considering the caterpillars, the roosters, the poop, the fish, and the penises—the cockroach’s reputation is etymologically (but not entomologically) doomed.
In its most generous translation, cucaracha is frequently coupled with the somewhat benign English word woodlouse. I’m not really sure what a wood-louse is. But it conjures vague high school memories of Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”—“Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?”—and since I just don’t know how to reconcile Scottish poets with penis-fish, the wood-louse is my dead end.
Shortly after I saw my first common cockroach, I saw my second. Then my third. I had the vague suspicion that roaches were like ants—that when you saw one, you were really seeing a hundred and one—but since I was happy in my ignorance, I didn’t attempt to confirm the fear.
Two or three times a week, I encountered a roach on the kitchen counter, the stove, or the bookshelf. But I tried not to let it get me down. Roaches, I rationalized, were just like crickets, except they’d gotten a bad rap. The roach and I had things in common—we both lived in a questionable building where the sunlight was scanty, where the neighbors dropped garbage out their windows, and where homeless people slept in the stairwells. The cockroaches, I thought, were functioning symbols of my life as a graduate student—striving, underestimated, excluded, and poor. How could I despise them?
Then, one day after a lukewarm shower, a roach fell out of my...