Etymology Usage

How many hornets in a hornet’s nest?

Q: I am curious to hear your opinion on why the word “hornet” in the title of Stieg Larsson’s third novel is singular in the US and plural in the UK.

A: First, a true story (unfortunately).

Earlier in the summer, Pat decided to prune an overgrown lilac near our house. Suddenly she was attacked by a hornet (just one, oddly), which, despite some frantic flailing and arm-waving on her part, succeeded in stinging Pat on the chin.

Yikes! It was extremely painful.

In clearing away the brush later, Pat discovered a nest – this hornet’s nest – in one of the pruned-away branches. Presumably there were other hornets that called this nest their home, but she had dealings with only one.

We were reminded of all this when your question landed in our mailbox (and we’re sorry it’s taken us so long to answer it).

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (its US title), the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, grapples with one principal enemy – the archfiend Zalachenko.

There are peripheral bad guys as well, but he’s the biggie, and arguably the “hornet” of the title.

For this reason, we think the US title makes more sense than the British one. It’s Zalachenko’s “nest” that Salander is metaphorically kicking.

The title is appropriate for other reasons, too.

Many US publishers use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) as their house dictionary. And M-W renders the well-known expression as “hornet’s nest.”

So do at least two more American references: Random House Webster’s College Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

We did, however, find “hornets’ nest” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Score: three to one for the singular.

But, like Stieg Larsson’s British publisher, the two UK dictionaries we checked seem to favor the plural version. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English has “hornets’ nest,” and so does the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the citations given in the OED for the actual use of the phrase are mixed – some singular, some plural.

In fact, the first published example of the expression uses the singular version. It’s from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1739-40): “I rais’d a Hornet’s Nest about my Ears, that … may have stung to Death my Reputation.”

Of the seven citations for the use of the phrase that are given in the OED, five have “hornet’s nest” and only two have “hornets’ nest.”

Obviously, both forms of the expression (which means a dangerous, violent situation, or an explosive reaction) are legitimate.

Nests have multiple hornets, not just one. And if you’re stirring up a nest full of them, you’re stirring up a “hornets’ nest.”

But if one villainous hornet is what you’re stalking, and it’s his nest you’re kicking, then it seems appropriate to call it “a hornet’s nest.” 

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