What are they on about?

21st September 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham has a small problem that won't go away

I don't care how long it takes. Nobody is leaving until the person responsible owns up. After all, somebody must know who invented the term "minibeast".

I've looked in books. But this word is taking so long to crawl into the dictionary that some galumphing infant will probably squidge it before it gets there.

Even American reference books feign ignorance, yet "minibeast" infestation has long been a fact of life in the New World.

I've looked it up in a "Glossary of Minibeast Terms" published on the web by the Young Entomologists' Society. But entomologists clearly have a limited interest in etymology, for their list, wittily entitled "Buzz words", jumps from"mimicry" straight to "minuten" (apparently "minuten" are the pins used for mounting dead insects for display).

Yet "minibeast" continues to bug me. What do I say when my four-year-old asks if an ant is a minibeast? No, son, an ant is an insect. "But Mrs Bellow says ants are minibeasts, Daddy."

Now I can see what attracts Mrs Bellow to this happy-clappy classification of our smaller fauna. Arthropod covers insects, spiders and crustacea - anything with segmented bodies and jointed limbs. But it's a bit of a twister for tiny tongues ("Why has it got only half a pod, Daddy?"), and besides, it leaves slugs and snails out in the cold. "Minibeast", on the other hand, being unlicensed and unregistered, is free to cover anything the user pleases.

But however convenient this loose new category may be - "minibeast" is, after all, just Blue Peter-speak for "creepy crawly" - I can't help thinking that its inventor took a small step backwards for mankind.

And in this, it seems, I have an ally. For as I searched the internet in vain for news of the word's origins, I came across a report of a nature ramble, written by pupils of Ambleside CE primary school in Cumbria. "Pond Dipping" said the heading. And beneath the words "Searching for minibeasts" was this caveat: "Mr Robinson hates the word 'minibeast'. He wants it banned. It is not scientific enough."

Well here's to you, Mr Robinson!


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