Loud, incessant, and indescribable: cicadas and their names

by Julia Robinson

‘Equally annoying with the dust was the loud, incessant, and indescribable noise of myriads of large and curious winged insects, commonly and incorrectly called locusts, but which are totally different from any kind of locusts I ever saw.’ (Mrs C. Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales, 1844)

In early summer I enjoyed a weekend walk with friends on a favourite walking trail on the edge of suburban Canberra. On our way back we paused in a pocket of bush where cicadas in their hundreds were clustered thickly on tree trunks. The air was full of their noise, and a single kestrel looked on from a high branch, considering its next mouthful at the insect buffet.

Greengrocer. Source: Trudyro at English Wikipedia

Greengrocer

The noise we heard was the mating call of the male cicada. It is caused by the rapid vibration of the membranes of a structure called the tymbal, and amplified by other internal structures. It is a familiar summer soundscape in most parts of Australia, heard in cities, towns, and suburbs as well as the bush. One of my walking companions remembered a cicada name from her childhood in Newcastle: ‘black prince’, one of the many common names Australian English has for cicadas. In Newcastle, ‘black prince’ is likely to be the species Psaltoda plaga.

I wake to the sound of bees in the new wattle and cicadas: black princes, green grocers, yellow Mondays and floury bakers droning in the bush. (S. Bisley, Stillways, 2013)

Floury baker. Source: Toby Hudson (Wikimedia Commons)

Floury baker

The number of colourful common names for cicadas is one of the interesting things about them. Some are named for the sound they make (razor grinder, double drummer), some for their colour (black prince, blue moon), and some for their distinctive markings (floury baker, lamplighter). Other names are less obvious. The origin of ‘Monday’ in the names yellow Monday and green Monday is unknown. As noted in Mrs Meredith’s comment at the head of this blog, the name locust is a popular name for the cicada in Australian English, although technically incorrect as cicadas are unrelated to locusts.

Many Australians have experienced a childhood fascination with these creatures, perhaps as a result of finding the empty cicada-shaped husks abandoned by the adult cicadas, who leave their exoskeletons behind as they grow out of them. No doubt our interest is also aroused by the volume of sound cicadas produce; they are among the loudest of all insects. Despite this, most of us know from backyard experience how hard it is to find a single cicada in a garden by following its sound, since it usually stops calling as you approach.

Cicada exoskeleton. Source: Brian Stansberry

Cicada exoskeleton

Over the years children have collected, swapped, and played with cicadas, and used them in various classroom pranks. This interest is reflected in the number of items on cicadas in popular natural history columns and pages for children in 20th century Australian newspapers. Ninety years ago, in a story on the Children’s Page of one Sydney paper, a young girl exclaims: ‘I just love them all: Black Princes, Yellow Mondays, Greengrocers, and Floury Bakers. I just love their fat old bodies, and gauzy wings, and lovely crawly, sticky legs.’ (Catholic Press, 20 December, 1923). It is easy to imagine that children may have coined some of the common names for the cicadas they found.

A selection of Australian cicada names below illustrates our fascination with these insects.

Black prince. Source: en.wikipedia.org

Black prince

black prince A predominantly black cicada, Psaltoda plaga, of eastern Queensland and New South Wales. First recorded in 1923.

Mr and Mrs Cicada lately rented a big tree… And oh! the airs and graces they are giving themselves since one of the Miss Cicadas is engaged to a Black Prince. (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1931)

bladder cicada A green cicada, Cystosoma saundersii, of eastern Australia, the male having a large abdomen. First recorded in 1891.

Some species sing at night, including the bladder cicada. … They are sometimes attracted to lights and may then fall prey to domestic cats. (R.D. Hughes, Living Insects,1975)  

Blue moon. Source: Australian Museum

Blue moon. Source: Australian Museum

blue moon A blue-coloured form of the usually green cicada Cyclochila australasiae. First recorded in 1990.

The Greengrocer (Cyclochila australasiae) is usually green but orange-yellow and blue forms may occur. The blue form, known as the Blue Moon, is rarely encountered. (Nature Australia, Spring 2002) 

cherry nose Also called fiddler and whisky drinkerA dark-coloured cicada, Macrotristria angularis, with a bright red nose. First recorded in 1949.

Pre-Christmas mornings they rose early and filled cardboard boxes with their noisy captives, choosing only a ‘special’, such as a cherry nose to take to school. (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 2013) 

double drummer A black and yellow cicada, Thopha saccata, of southern and eastern Australia, with two large organs that produce its characteristic ‘drumming’ sound. First recorded in 1895.

How I remember my feeble attempts to introduce them into the girls’ school bags at lunch time, and the din a Double Drummer could make in mum’s empty cake tin. (Canberra Times, 24 May 2004) 

Fiddler, whisky drinker, cherry nose. Source: Australian Museum

Fiddler, whisky drinker, cherry nose. Source: Australian Museum

fiddler See cherry nose above. (Perhaps named for the sound of its call.) First recorded in 1903.

The Fiddler… This insect takes its popular name from the fancied resemblance of its call-note to the sound of the fiddle. (Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, volume XIV, 1903)

floury baker Also floury miller. A cicada, Aleeta curvicosta, of south-eastern Queensland and coastal New South Wales, with a covering of easily detachable hair-like scales resembling flour in appearance. (Named for the appearance of the abdomen that looks as if it has been dusted with baker’s flour.) First recorded in 1895.

The ‘floury miller’ or ‘floury baker’ is the best musician of them all. … He is reddish-brown, with a pale stripe down the front half of his body and three black spots on his wings. He looks as though he had been dusted with flour, hence his name. (Sydney Morning Herald 6 November 1909)

greengrocer Also called green Monday. The green form of the cicada Cyclochila australasiae of south-eastern Australia. First recorded in 1905.

‘Mine’s a Greengrocer—look!’ Durras opened his hand carefully, showing a cicada with iridescent wings folded back on a body of delicate green. (Cusack & James, Come in Spinner, 1951)

green Monday See greengrocer above. First recorded in 1895.

It is remarkable that for many years the Green Monday has deserted the bush lands in the vicinity of Sydney, and congregated chiefly in the suburban parks and gardens.Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 1932) 

Green Monday, green grocer. Source: Australian Museum

Green Monday, green grocer. Source: Australian Museum

lamplighter A cicada, Cyclochila australasiae. (Perhaps named for the markings on its head.) First recorded in 1860.

From the circumstances of these having three ruby-coloured spots in the front of the head, they are called Lamplighters by the boys. (G. Bennett, Gatherings of Naturalist, 1860) 

pisser A cicada that squirts a liquid when disturbed. First recorded in 1980.

To us kids, to find and show others a shrilling Green Grocer locust was a massive status symbol. To present a non-shrilling locust in company, the kind we schoolkids elegantly called a pisser, was to lose all status. Better not to have found one. (Sydney Sunday Telegraph, 16 January 2005)

razor grinder A reddish-brown cicada, Henicopsaltria eydouxii, of New South Wales and Queensland, the male producing a sound like the grinding of metal. First recorded in 1846.

 Psaltoda harissi. This is the cicada which in the past has been called the ‘Razor-grinder’ on account of the curious whirring note of the male. (Australian Museum Magazine, March 1953)

Outgrown cicada husks

Outgrown cicada husks

Union Jack A kind of cicada, formerly applied to the large black and orange Macrotristria angularis of eastern Australia, and later to the double drummer. (Perhaps named for its markings.) First recorded in 1873.

This cicada has several trivial names among the Sydney boys, and though the male is well known as the ‘Double Drummer’ on account of the large swollen covers over the drums, it is also known as the ‘Union Jack’. (Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, volume XIV, 1903) 

washerwoman A cicada of eastern Australia. (Named for some association with the sound of washing clothes.) First recorded in 1903.

There was nothing vivid about the specimens in the cicada case, transfixed by pins and darkened by time.. Washerwoman, Union Jack, Floury Baker, Whisky Drinker and Razor Grinder all looked much of a muchness. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 1960) 

whisky drinker See cherry nose above. First recorded in 1929.

The Australian Macrotristria angularis is known .. as the ‘Whisky Drinker’. Its protuberant face is bulbous and bright red. (J.G. Myers, Insect Singers, 1929) 

yellow Monday The yellow form of the cicada Cyclochila australasiae of south-eastern Australia. First recorded in 1873.

Yellow Monday

Yellow Monday

The most beautiful cicada was the Yellow Monday. He was as yellow as a canary and transparent as crystal. (C. James, Unreliable Memoirs, 1980

 

One thought on “Loud, incessant, and indescribable: cicadas and their names

  1. Very good article – both info and pics. As a Novocastrian from way back, the Black Prince is the one I am most familiar with.

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