What do you call a centipede?

In the chapter The Language of Numbers of his book The Number Sense, S.Dehaene mentions an arthropod that is popularly known in English as centipede while in French its name is millepattes (thousand-leg). In reality, the fellow has only 42 legs.

In English there are actually two words, centipede and millipede symbolizing although related but still different arthropods. Both belong to the class of myriapods. I can't be sure but the latter term seems to originate appropriately from myriad, which is a very large, indefinite number; innumerable, with the Greek source murias - ten thousand, or murios - countless.

My son has boxes of Safari Cards which parents subscribe to when their children are very young. The cards keep coming past kindergarten, grade school, and well into the college age. The number of various animals on earth being indeed enormous, the stream of cards never stops by itself. As a long term subscriber, I felt I am entitled to scan three cards with three different species in question. The exact number of the myriapoda is not properly known and their classification is very complex.


It's this one that has 42 legs. The body is segmented into 21 pieces each with a couple of legs, one on each side. The fellow is poisonous but inoffensive. Feels best in damps and very much subject to dehydration as the other varieties of the species. Of dehydration they die. Life span (in captivity) is estimated at 7 years which is exactly 2 months per leg.

Long-legged Centipede

This fellow has only 30 to 40 legs and a relatively short body. In a strange kind of a way it's classified as related more to the millipedes than to the centipedes. It's fast though its legs are very fragile and easily broken when in motion. The limbs fast regenerate and the total amount of extremities possessed by a single individual over its life span may be considerable.


Millipedes may indeed deserve their name. The number of segments comprising their body and, hence, the number of legs increases with age. Molting is a regular occurrence throughout their life. Unlike snakes, e.g., the millipedes do not part with the shed cuticle but, instead, use it as an extra segment which with time dutifully acquires a pair of legs. Millipedes, of course, hold the world record for the number of legs. However, they are very slow movers.

From the Redwoods, CA
August 2009

Below are the results of an escape to a Border's bookstore where I checked the Reference bookshelves.

  1. Czech
    Stonozka (= "one hundred small legs".)
  2. Danish
  3. Dutch
  4. Esperanto
    Skolopendro (I doubt this translation from travlang's Translating Dictionaries which is a fantastic online convenience. By the sound of it, if correct, the word is probably supposed to mean a school (like in a school of fish) of appendages.)
  5. French
  6. Gaelic
    Ceud-chasach (Ceud naturally enough means hundred. The meaning of chasach is hidden from. Cas, however, means leg.)
  7. German
  8. Greek
    where is just forty. The rest must be Greek for legs.
  9. Hungarian
  10. Italian
  11. Latin
    Scolopendra (This comes from the same online dictionary and appears to lend support to Esperanto. However, I am not aware of Latin usage of the word schola (scola) to denote a multitude of things.)
  12. Norwegian
  13. Polish
    Stonoga (= "one hundred legs".)
  14. Portuguese
    Centopeia (for centipede, millipede is mysteriously translated as embua)(2)
  15. Russian
    where is plain forty, I must know. The rest means "a small leg."
  16. Spanish
  17. Swedish
  18. Turkish

Perhaps it's a deficiency of the dictionaries sold by Border's but only in Portuguese(2) I found separate words for centipede and millipede. Later, on the Web, I found that in German, too, there are two words: hundertfuesser and tausendfuesser (not quite as above.) In French, both words are translated as "thousand-leg." Czech, Italian(1), Spanish, and Polish are more reasonable sticking with centipede. Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish derive from millipede. Greek and Russian are champions of accuracy. They miss just 2 legs which should be preferred to the next best, 58.

As usual, the Hebrews showed more wisdom than the most. Their word

(marbe raglaim) stands for noncommittal the one with many legs but may also be translated as the one that grows legs. Latin usage (if correct) is also noncommittal and, in addition, hints that there is a lesson to be learnt from this subject.

(1) Raffaele Palomba has informed me that in Italian there are indeed two words millepiedi and centopiedi with the former being used more frequently. Which shows that one can't learn everything from a dictionary.

(2) The above is true even more than I originally thought. Ricardo Pascoal has set the record straight with the remark that, in Portuguese, it is true that, mostly, people will simply use "centopeia" when making reference to any of the centipedes and millipedes, but "millipedes" (with an acute accent on the second I) does exist as translation to the latter.

José Rosenblatt has shed (May, 2010) additional light on the Portugese usage:


About centipedes being called "embuá" in Portuguese: I am Brazilian and I had never heard of it, but then I live in Rio de Janeiro and there are many words that are used only in certain regions. As far as I knew, Ricardo Pascoal's explanation was quite correct and complete, but I decided to look up "embuá" in Portuguese dictionaries published in Brazil and also on the Web, and there it was - depending on the dictionary, it refers either to a specific type of millipede, or to centipedes and millipedes in general. The specific millipede is considered a pest, and there are sites with advice on how to get rid of it. The word itself comes from Tupi, which was one of the main languages spoken in Brazil before Europeans arrived. Brazilian Portuguese incorporated many Tupi words, and embuá is one of them. I also looked it up in a Tupi dictionary, and there it was - written as "ambūá", and meaning "centipede" (one of the Portuguese dictionaties I consulted mentioned "ambuá" as a variant of "embuá").

So now we know the origin of the mysterious word "embuá". Does it have any special meaning in Tupi, like a hundred feet? I don't know, but my guess is "no". The reason is that it sounds close to "mboi" or "embu" (depending on the dictionary), which in Tupi means "snake". So (and this is a complete guess on my part) maybe in this case the word for centipede/millipede has to do with a snakelike body form, and not with the number of feet.

If anyone is interested, https://www.portoeditora.pt/dol/ is a Portuguese dictionary that contains their definitions.

Fast forward to June 2009: google's translator helps verify all of the above translations, except for Esperanto, but with a consolation of the following:

  1. Albanian
    Shumëkëmbësh, dyzetkëmbësh
  2. Bulgarian
    (meaning 100 legs)
  3. Croatian
  4. Estonian
  5. Filipino
  6. Finnish
    juoksujalkainen, tuhatjalkainen
  7. Galician
  8. Indonesian
    Kalalipan, halipan, lipan, lintibang
  9. Latvian
  10. Lithuanian
  11. Romanian
  12. Serbian
    (meaning 100 legs)
  13. Slovak
    (meaning 100 legs, sounds an authentic Russian to me)
  14. Slovenian
  15. Turkish
  16. Ukranian
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