In modern parlance, the word pest, as in pest control has come to refer to a myriad of house invading creatures including mice, roaches, termites, bedbugs, fleas and other insects, wild birds, wild animals, spiders and snakes. But when we go back in time, we find the word had a different twist. It didn't refer to the animals we call pests today, but to the deadly filth and disease which they carry. Thus pest control means ridding the home of the noisome critters which carry deadly diseases.
The proof for the assertion that "pest" had a different emphasis in ancient history can be found in the annals of online etymology reports. Etymon , the most reliable online etymological dictionary notes that pest originally appeared in English in the midst of imprecations, such as "a pest (or a plague) upon you." We can trace the Latin roots of the word via the Middle French word "peste". Both "peste" and its Latin antecedent "pestis" meant deadly contagious disease.
Etymological derivations of other pest related words indicate that "pestis" also meant "plague." Pestilence, derived from the 13th century Old French word pestilence, and from the Latin pestilential means plague, noun of action from pestilentem (nom. pestilens). In this derivation, Entymon notes that pestilens derives from pestis, which can also mean plague.
Now a mouse is not a deadly contagious disease. However, a mouse carries Leptospirosis, a dangerous microbe, and it can also carry dangerous or even deadly viruses. Likewise, a pigeon, is a bothersome creature, especially when it uses our porches and sidewalks as a bathroom, but it isn't contagious. However, pigeons can carry and transmit histoplasmosis, and other dangerous or deadly respiratory conditions. The plague, the deadly scourge of the Middle Ages, was transmitted by rats and fleas. While rats and fleas both bite, they are not, in and of themselves causes of contagious diseases.| Both rats and fleas are noxious animals, which in and of themselves are not contagious. }However, they do transmit the once deadly plague. Bats, another frightful household pest are not in and of themselves deadly. However, they carry rabies. Not only their bite, but in some cases their well aimed spit can transmit this incurable virally transmitted disease
Having looked at the historical roots of the word pest, and its modern usages, we can create a clearer picture of the changes in the word's applications that took place over time. We see, simply that the term pest in pest control, for example, has been reassigned from microbes and viruses which cause pestilence to visible animals which spread the microbial and viral causes of plagues and disease. Another way to express this, however, would be to say that by controlling the animals that spread pestilence we are controlling pests, (viruses and microbes which cause plague). Like many other modern words, however, the original associations of pest tend to get lost in modern parlance.
It must be noted that while the phrase pest control is approximately 200 years old, it has come to have new connotations. Classically, for example pest control and mice control are not synonymous. It might be proper to say that mice removal is a form of pest control because we are removing disease carrying rodents from our home. However, we could control mice by putting them in a cage, as is done in a laboratory, and this might not remove the pests they carry from our environment, which is our true intent. Termites do not carry disease, and yet they are lumped in the category of pests, for the most part because they are noxious and dangerous critters who threaten the well being of our homes. So this usage suggests that the words pests, like many other words, has taken on an enlarged meaning.
Likewise, vaccination, isolation and testing might classically be considered forms of pest control, but in general the profession of pest control has come to refer to the removal of small creatures between the size of mites to large animals, that carry filth and disease into the home.
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