Midgery do

Thanks to a trail of distractions that started with the Earth Sciences Picture of the Day for 27 July 2012, I’ve become aware of a little linguistic quirk in Icelandic that may resonate with those who — like me — have experience of the microscopic flying piranha known to its friends as meanbh-chuileag, the Highland midge.

The Icelandic word for midge, it seems, is . Except that it isn’t, exactly. To quote an article by W. Sidney Allen [“Creatures great and small: Some cross-linguistic parallels”, pp. 495–500 in Productivity and Creativity: Studies in General and Descriptive Linguistics in Honor of E. M. Uhlenbeck, ed. M. Jansen; Mouton de Gruyter, 1998],

the word properly refers not to the single insect but to the swarm as a whole, a “midgery” so to speak: thus, for example, “full of midges” translates as fullt af mýji, where mýji is dative singular, not plural. To refer to a single such insect the compound mýfluga is used, i.e. “midgery-fly”, the second element being the name for a fly of any description.

As Allen also notes, midges in Icelandic are a prototype of the uncountable; hence the adjective mýmargur, meaning roughly “as uncountable as midges”. Midges, as the Icelanders correctly spotted, are like sand: the natural object is the continuum rather than the individual. Tolstoy would have loved it.

Presumably an Icelandic Archimedes would have written the Midge-Reckoner instead of the Psammites. I think I may also start referring to Cantor’s \aleph_1 as the Midge Number…

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