We have many reasons to love dragonflies. They look cool, eat mosquitoes—and have some nifty nicknames across the U.S. In our continued partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), we bring you 25 dramatic dragonfly designations from around the country.
1., 2., AND 3. DEVIL’S DARNING NEEDLE, DARNING NEEDLE, AND SEWING NEEDLE
Devil’s darning needle, darning needle, and sewing needle are just a few nicknames that come from the way dragonflies “fly back and forth over the same area as a needle travels when darning socks,” according to Hawaiian Nature Notes.
Devil’s darning needle is a chiefly northern term, while darning needle is mostly used in the Northeast, Inland North, and the West. Dining needle, a variant of darning needle, might be heard on Long Island; Spanish needle in Nebraska; stitcher in California and Massachusetts; and sewing needle in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.
Dragonflies are harmless but somehow gained a nasty reputation. A belief was that the “devil’s darning-needle [would] sew together the fingers or toes of a person who goes to sleep within its reach,” according to the 1899 book Animal and Plant Lore. It would also “sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children, and profane men,” “sting you to death,” and “enter the ears and penetrate the brain of a person.” Animal and Plant Lore isn't the only place these ideas pop up: In The Insect Guide (1948), author Ralph B. Swain writes that “it was once popularly believed that [large dragonflies] sewed up the ears of truant schoolboys,” while a 1967 quote in DARE says “it would sew up your mouth if you told a lie.”
4., 5., 6., AND 7. EAR CUTTER, EAR SEWER, EAR NEEDLE, AND EYE STITCHER
Want kids to behave? Make up scary stuff about insects. The term ear cutter comes from the myth that dragonflies “will cut the ears of children who lie,” according to DARE. Synonyms include ear sewer and ear needle, the latter of which is probably a blend of ear sewer and darning needle. Eye stitcher comes from the frightening idea that dragonflies “will sew your eyes shut if you don’t behave.”
Pronounced sneeder or snyder, this Wisconsin moniker comes from the German word for tailor and also refers to the daddy longlegs and other insects.
9., 10., AND 11. SNAKE SERVANT, SNAKE GUARDER, AND SNAKE HEEDER
A Pennsylvania term, snake servant apparently comes from the belief that dragonflies warned snakes “of approaching danger, and aided them in the acquisition of food,” according to the Journal of American Folklore.
Also in the Pennsylvania German area were snake heeder and snake guarder, according to A Word Geography of the United States. The latter term is a loan translation of the Pennsylvania German schlangehieter, while the former is a partial translation of the same word, according to DARE.
More snake-related nicknames include snake waiter, especially in Maryland; snake peter in Wisconsin and New Jersey; snake feeder in the Midland and Plains States; and snake charmer in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Montana, and the Northeast.
12. SNAKE DOCTOR
While dragonflies might be the stuff of bratty kids’ nightmares, they were apparently a boon to snakes. Snake doctor, chiefly used in the Midland and South, comes from the idea that dragonflies could “cure snakes” or snakebites. According to the 1893 book Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, the “two bumps sometimes seen on the [dragonfly], just behind his wings, are called his saddlebags, and in them he is reputed to carry medicine for the snakes.” Meanwhile, an Alabama resident told DARE dragonflies “picked off the gnats that would gather in a small cloud around a sunning snake.”
Other doctor epithets include witch doctor, especially in the South Midland, and mosquito doctor, probably a blend of mosquito hawk, another nickname for the dragonfly, and snake doctor.
13., 14., AND 15. DEVIL’S DRAGON, DEVIL’S RIDING HORSE, AND DICKINSON’S HORSE
Dragonflies were considered devilish in some regions, with devil’s dragon quoted in Tennessee; devil horse and devil's horse in Wisconsin, Alabama, and Mississippi; and devil’s riding horse in North Carolina. In Iowa you might hear Dickinson’s horse or Dickinson’s mare where, we’re speculating, Dickinson might be a variation on Dick, Dickens, and other old-fashioned names for the devil.
16., 17., AND 18. HORSE DOCTOR, MOSQUITO HORSE, AND HORSE STINGER
Horse-related idioms are another variation. You might hear horse doctor in Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas, where one resident said it might be “bad luck for ‘horse doctors’ to fly around near the fish pole.” Mosquito horse might be heard in Mississippi and Georgia. In Nebraska, horse stinger comes from the old-timey belief that dragonflies stung horses and even sucked their blood, according to the book Hill County Harvest.
19. AND 20. MULE KILLER AND BEE-BUTCHER
Similarly, mule killer comes from the incorrect belief that dragonflies killed mules, and not-so-similarly, bee-butcher from their true habit of eating bees and other small insects.
Not just a schoolyard taunt, four-eyes might be a dragonfly designation in Illinois, referring to its compound eye, according to DARE. Sarah Zielinski writes at Smithsonian that “nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.”
22. AND 23. HELICOPTER AND AIRPLANE
Then there are the regionalisms related to how dragonflies move. According to Zielinksi, they’re “expert fliers” and can “fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air.” So it’s no surprise that the dragonfly is known as a helicopter in areas like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest. Meanwhile, over in California, Delaware, Washington, and South Dakota, the insect might be called an airplane, airplane bug, and airplane fly.
According to Hawaiian Nature, a particular species of dragonfly known as the globe-skimmer takes “advantage of any little puddle of water in the lowlands to breed,” which is why “this species is so abundant, even in the driest localities.” The species migrates 11,000 miles—the farthest of any insect.
25. LONG-ASS BUTTERFLY
And if you’re ever in the Buckeye State, be like one Ohioan jokester who referred to a dragonfly for what it is: a long-ass butterfly.