Word of the Week

Week two: LERP (probability 1724), by David Sutton

LERP is defined by Chambers as follows: 'in Australia, a scalelike, waxy, protective, edible secretion produced on the leaves of certain plants by louse larvae'. It may seem surprising that humanity has found it necessary to coin a word for this substance, but of course the clue is in the 'edible'. The word comes from a native Australian language, and such languages are renownedly rich when it comes to documenting the more useful aspects of the environment such as foodstuffs and healing plants. But one would like to know more about LERP — how, for example, is it eaten? Perhaps to add a soupçon of flavour to that other well-known Australian delicacy, WITCHETTY grubs? I was unable to find an answer to this, but I did discover more about the substance itself.

The insect that produces LERP is a PSYLLA (or PSYLLID), a jumping plant-louse. LERP insects are sap suckers (not to be confused with a SAPSUCKER, which is a kind of woodpecker) and aggregate in colonies on eucalpyptus and acacia trees, much in the manner of APHIDS. They insert their STYLETS, or mouthparts, into the plant and begin feeding and constructing a lerp, formed from the sugar and wax excreted by the insects. Those materials harden on contact with air to form the protection. Lerps vary in size, colour and shape, and each species has its own characteristic.

There is also a word PELA for a substance that sounds very like LERP. PELA is Chinese wax prepared from the waxy secretions of the Chinese bark-louse, Ericerus pela. The word comes from the Chinese baila, meaning white wax. I don't know if PELA is edible and don't intend to find out.


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