An infestation

A quirky Joe Dator cartoon from the January 20th issue of the New Yorker:


(#1) “We’re not a seafood restaurant–this building has a pretty severe lobster infestation.”

NOAD‘s account of the everyday usage of infestation (with notes added by me in square brackets):

noun infestation: the presence of an unusually large number of insects or animals [not plants or microbes] in a place, typically so as to cause damage or disease [of concern to human beings]: infestation with head lice is widespread | efforts were made to deal with an infestation of rats in the building.

Usage notes. The usage above connects the verb infest and the noun  infestation to pests, vermin, and (obnoxious) invasive creatures. But of course infestation can be used metaphorically, to refer to anything in abundant supply, like the cats in this Thurber cartoon:


(#2) From James Thurber, The Owl in The Attic and Other Perplexities (1931)

Literal infestations of (feral) cats are possible as well. Similarly, creatures that are sometimes found in abundance can occasionally appear in such concentrations as to constitute pests, and so to count as infestations: ladybugs / ladybirds (I myself experienced the Great Ladybird (metaphorical) Plague of 1976 in southern England), crickets, pigeons, squirrels (especially in attics).

Common infestations include those of rodents (rats, mice), bedbugs, cockroaches, scabies, head lice, mites and ticks, fleas, ants, mosquitoes, scorpions, and spiders; infestations by insect pests of crops (e.g. bollworms), ornamental plants (e.g. Japanese beetles), and trees (e.g. bark beetles, spotted lanternflies); and pantry pests (“insects infesting stored foods”, in the definition on the Univ. of Minnesota Extension site).

Note: the Wikipedia entry on infestation relies primarily on Dorland’s Medical Dictionary:

Infestation is the state of being invaded or overrun by pests or parasites [and is distinguished from infection].

The lexical sphere of infestation. The three most closely related lexical items, from NOAD:

noun pest: [a] a destructive insect or other animal that attacks crops, food, livestock, etc. [b, metaphorical] informal an annoying person or thing; a nuisance.

noun vermin: [treated as plural] [a] wild mammals and birds that are believed to be harmful to crops, farm animals, or game, or that carry disease, e.g., foxes, rodents, and insect pests. [b] parasitic worms or insects. [c, metaphorical] people perceived as despicable and as causing problems for the rest of society: the vermin who ransacked her house.

adj. invasive: (especially of plants or a disease) tending to spread prolifically and undesirably or harmfully.

An infestation has an objectively determinable side: it is an unusual abundance, a concentration of certain creatures in quantities significantly greater than normal. But its central characterizing feature is one of function, the role this abundance plays in human life — by creating undesirable, unpleasant, or threatening circumstances.

This theme of form — objectively determinable characteristics — vs. function — roles in culture, or in human life more generally — is one that comes up frequently in my writing about semantics (in my very informal way). See in particular my discussion of the C(ount) vs. M(ass) categorization of plant names in my “Counting Chad” abstract from 3/16/01, with reference to the general principle taCsiM (things are C, stuff is M):

1 (F) taCsiM is not an objective principle, but instead takes into account the salience [or] significance of a thing vs. stuff analysis of the referent for ordinary human dealing with it – especially for those dealings with it that are conventional within a culture.

The metaphorical surround of infest(ation). Note the metaphorical extensions of pest and vermin above to people perceived as social undesirables or dangers. So there’s a long history of characterizing Jews as vermin (in one language or another), and more recently, a tradition of referring to immigrants similarly.

The same extension has contaminated infest(ation) as well, notably in Helmet Grabpussy’s references to immigrants from Mexico and Central America in these terms. I won’t dirty this posting with citations of his vicious meanspiritedess; if you feel you need to read the texts, you can easily look them up.

Back to Joe Dator and the lobster infestation. Wonderfully loopy, the idea that lobsters would get so out of hand they would become an indoor pestilence, climbing up the walls and congregating on all the flat surfaces. Or, more likely, that this restaurant has decided to cope with a lobster population explosion by cooking the creatures and serving them to its diners; note that all of the lobsters seem to be immobile and that one of them is actually lying belly-up on a plate.

5 Responses to “An infestation”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    I like the cartoon and your observations!

    You wrote, “But its central characterizing feature is one of function, the role this abundance plays in human life — by creating undesirable, unpleasant, or threatening circumstances.”

    I wouldn’t call this a _function_ so much as an _effect_ While we do say “X functions as Y in context Z”, for me the primary meaning of something’s function is its intended use or effect. Obviously an infestation’s effect is not something intended by the humans affected by it. It might be a function for the vermin, but only from their point of view, FOOD! or WARMTH!

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      I took over the usual form/function terminology simply because it *is* familiar — but using both terms in extended senses (for reference to objective characteristics vs. cultural roles). I don’t have spiffier terminology and didn’t want to put off this posting while I went on a terminological adventure. My apologies if you’ve been misled.

  2. Michael Vnuk Says:

    The lobsters on the wall almost look like hunting trophies, especially because they are fairly symmetrically arranged at the same height. For an infestation, I would have drawn them more randomly scattered, including on the floor.

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