At this time of year, one can’t enjoy a picnic without the risk of swarms of unwelcome invaders. As a lad growing up in Oxfordshire, I recall some rural types would refer to wasps as ‘jaspers‘ and it turns out that this word is used in many parts of the country. I used to think that the word wasp itself was derived from the latin vespa “wasp” (the Italian scooters are named after the insects) but this is only half true as it turns out they each share a common Indo-European root.

The Germanic etymology of wasp goes to Old English wæps or wæsp “wasp,” which derives from Proto-Germanic *wabis but was also influenced by latin vespa. *Wabis is also the root of Dutch wesp, German Wespe and Danish hveps and it comes from PIE *wopsa-/*wospa– “wasp”. The PIE root may come from *webh “weave” in reference to the appearance of wasps’ nests. The Baltic languages also have a cognate with Lithuanian vapsa which sounds to me a lot like the English rural colloquialism jasper.

I doubt that jasper comes from vapsa, it is more likely derived from the Latin vespa, perhaps entering the language in medieval times and being preserved in certain dialects. Interestingly, the word is not restricted to one region, being widespread from South West England, in Devon and Gloucestershire and all the way across to East Anglia. It is also used in parts of Scotland. It seems to be absent from all urban dialects in the UK with the possible exception of Bristol (is that really urban though?).

Considering that Latin was the language of the learned elite in medieval Britain, it is curious that a Latin derived word has been preserved in this informal form. I would appreciate any linguists getting in touch if they are aware how this dialect term became so widespread and could tell me where it came from. Thanks!

Written by Tom Rowsell