Varroa: a mite by any other name
Today I’m going to write eloquently about something I know nothing about. I realize some of you will think that’s not unusual, so I forgive you in advance.
The thing on my mind today is the pronunciation of the word “Varroa.” I was always taught that scientific names are a bit wishy-washy when it comes to pronunciation. Different pronunciations are accepted because the names are often based on Latin, a language that is no longer spoken. Since it’s not spoken, who’s to say what is right?
Worried about saying it right
Before I presented my master’s thesis, I was very concerned about pronouncing some of the chemical names, including imidacloprid and clothianidin. I asked several professors about it and, predictably, was given different interpretations. But the very best advice was this: “Decide on a pronunciation and stick with it. Practice it over and over, and when you say it aloud, say it with authority.” In other words, if you’re going to be wrong, be powerfully wrong. Confidently wrong. Make it loud and clear.
I took that advice, practiced a lot, and when the time came, those words slid easily off my tongue. I learned from listening to other presenters that the only ones who sounded insecure were the ones who tripped over their words. When someone can’t say a word, you start to wonder if they understand it. Long story short: to be believed you need to pronounce the unpronounceable with conviction.
The language of biology
In the past few years I’ve applied this technique to bee genera as well. During my slide presentations, I can now speak fluidly about Triepeolus, Tetraloniella, and Coelioxys. When I begin learning one of these tongue-twisters, I first look for several interpretations, say them aloud, and then pick the version that makes sense to me. And then I practice until it’s mine.
But then there was Varroa
This whole philosophy, however, has failed me with the word “Varroa.” I saw the word in print before I ever heard it, and I defaulted to accenting the second syllable and giving it a long o, like they do on the Macmillan Dictionary site. But I was soon told by others that I was totally off base, and that I should accent the first syllable (more or less) as they do at the Merriam-Webster site.
Once you’ve learned how to say something, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s hard to change. But I practiced and practiced until I thought I had it. But the first time I gave a talk using my new pronunciation, I got strange looks from the audience. I could see the question on their faces, “Does she even know what she’s talking about?” The self-consciousness made it worse, and I started switching back and forth, almost as if I were talking about two different creatures. The memory of that session still keeps me awake at night.
A barrow of Varroa
But the next group I spoke to was even worse. When the person introducing me mentioned my topic, she said only two of the three syllables in Varroa, as if it rhymed with “barrow,” just like they do at Pronunciation Guide on Youtube. This reminded me of British English, where you might use 15 letters in a word but only pronounce half of them. I never understood why they waste so many letters over there.
I’ve decided that the pronunciation of Varroa has a regional aspect to it. When new club members learn it from old club members, the pronunciation seems to stick, at least until they go somewhere else and get embarrassed. Then they just shorten it to “mites.” If you’re talking about honey bees, plain old “mites” works pretty well these days since tracheal mites seem to be on the wane.
Even the namers can get it wrong
The entire subject of Varroa pronunciation was reawakened in me last week by Kirsten Traynor. In her most recent newsletter, Kirsten mentioned that the narrator in a Bayer video pronounced Varroa in an odd way. But when I listened, it didn’t seem odd to me at all, which caused me to fret all over again. I want to ask the person who named Varroa, “What were you thinking?”
But the idea of asking the namer brings me to another story. My father was a pharmaceutical researcher and worked on the development of a drug called Coricidin. When they named it, they pronounced the third syllable “ci” as “sigh,” with a long i sound. But when the drug became popular, the public pronounced that syllable like “see,” with a long e sound. After many years, the company gave up and decided to go with the flow. They finally changed their advertisements to align with the way the public said it instead of the way it was named.
I think the same thing will happen with Varroa. At some point, when enough people are saying it, we will meet in the middle, and the pronunciation will become standard. In the meantime, I’ve pretty much given up talking about Varroa. One way or the other, they cause far too much trouble.
Honey Bee Suite
Note: Because I still haven’t figured it out, you may have to click on “No Comments” to see the comments. Or better yet, you could tell me how to fix this irritating turn of events.