He invited the bemused newsmen to examine the delicate tracery of the insect’s wings. Fackler had been around for the previous Brood X appearance, 17 years earlier. He’d noticed that back then, the periodical cicadas had a W on each wing, an obvious harbinger of war.
But this cicada was different. Wrote the paper: “This time there is an ‘N’ on the right wing in addition to the ‘W’ on the left, which is taken as being a sign of ‘no war.’ ”
I don’t know what kind of funky cicada Fackler had, but it was an outlier. Periodical cicadas have a “W” on both wings. Well, not “W’s” — cicadas don’t read or write English — but designs that look like W’s. The veins are slightly thicker and darker there.
“It’s very important to use your imagination,” said Donald C. Weber, a USDA research entomologist and co-author of a 2018 biography of Charles V. Riley, a 19th-century entomologist who studied cicadas.
Humans are nothing if not imaginative. Said Weber: “I think when people saw some fantastic, spectacular phenomenon like this, they looked for messages. If they saw a W, they’d say, ‘Wow, that’s ‘war.’ ”
I did my own looking for messages, in the pages of old newspapers. Writers were happy to note the superstition, either to goose it along or knock it down. In 1885, the Washington Evening Star mentioned the cicada-wing-means-war superstition, while adding, “Timid people may rest assured that they portend nothing, unless it be warm weather.”
After an 1889 appearance of periodical cicadas in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley, the New York Times noted that anglers were using the insects as bait. The “W” on the wings, the paper wrote, was especially enticing to black bass, who found in it a “literary fascination.”
Other papers had other ideas. In 1913, a man named J. Dodson brought a cicada to the Dallas Morning News and pointed out the wings. (Apparently, people used to bring a lot of weird stuff to newspapers.)
Dodson said he didn’t know what the “W” stood for — and, anyway, he said, it might be an “M.”
A wag at the paper suggested the twin “W’s” marked the cicada as a supporter of Woodrow Wilson.
The 1919 appearance of Brood X came on the heels of World War I. That year, the Evening Star wrote: “Very long ago some superstition attached to the dark bars of the filmy wings. . . . Some prophet has arisen always to announce that the W on the locust’s wings means ‘war.’ Since this outbreak will come just at the conclusion of the war, and when even the imagination of the rural prophet could hardly conjure up the likelihood of another one, some new explanation will apparently have to be found this time.”
In 1936, the Star dutifully noted: “A peculiar wing formation of the cicada has the appearance of a W and this coupled with the fact that somewhere in the world there is usually a war going on has given rise to a tendency on the part of the superstitious to put credence in the prophetic nature of the insect.”
Of course, just as cicada nymphs spend years slumbering unseen underground, so too were the seeds of war again growing in Europe.
That same year, Star columnist Charles E. Tracewell remarked that while other bugs were repulsive, cicadas were admirably “clean.”
Tracewell wrote: “They are dry in composition, with smooth, shining surfaces, interesting colors, especially their fine red eyes, clear wings with interesting markings. The darker mark near the end of the wings, though it does seem to spell ‘W,’ in reality is merely a vein of the wings, and scarce could be in any other form.”
Tracewell lamented that others didn’t like cicadas as much as he did. He noticed that many people took sadistic glee in trampling them to death.
“It is unfortunate that with so many humans the one instinct, when confronted with something strange in the way of life, is to kill it,” he wrote.
Maybe the cicadas are on to something, after all.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.