Court: “Spiders are insects.” Biologists: “Say what?”

Last month, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th district rejected an appeal on the grounds that spiders are insects.  Now, I’m not a lawyer or a judge, but I am a biologist, and I have thoughts.  But before we get to those, a quick poll:

OK, on to the case.  A couple in Alabama made a claim on their homeowner’s insurance because their home was “infested” with brown recluse spiders.*  The insurance company denied coverage because the policy excluded loss due to “birds, vermin, rodents, or insects”.  The couple sued, arguing that spiders aren’t insects – and lost, and then lost again on appeal.  So, legally, it seems that (at least in the jurisdiction of the 11th Circuit, viz., Alabama, Florida, and Georgia**), spiders are insects.

Now, you may protest (as I did) that this is foolish on its face: spiders aren’t insects!  So what was the court thinking (or, alternatively, what was it on?)  Well, I was prepared to be horrified by the display of ignorance, but I read the whole decision and ended up… somewhat less but still a little horrified, and also intrigued, and also feeling some admiration.  So read on.

The whole decision rest on its opening sentence: “Alabama law requires courts to construe the terms of an insurance policy according to their ordinary meaning (emphasis mine).  By a word’s “ordinary meaning”, what the court means is its “ordinary, everyday meaning” and what “a reasonably prudent person applying for insurance would have understood the term to mean,” and explicitly not its technical or scientific meaning unless so indicated.  And the decision argues that spiders are, using the ordinary meanings, both insects and vermin.  The vermin claim I can accept easily enough: a Merriam-Webster definition of vermin as “small common harmful or objectionable animals (as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control” would surely include brown recluse spiders in most people’s minds (although not in mine!).  What surprised me (especially since it seems unnecessary to the case, which could have been decided simply on “vermin”) is that the decision actually argues first and at more length that spiders are also insects.  Really?

The court begins by acknowledging that spiders are arachnids, not insects, in the technical sense***.  Then it unleashes an long series of dictionary definitions to establish that many people do, in fact, consider the word “insect” to include spiders.  Much to my surprise, this turns out to be true (although generally, the first definition in a given dictionary is the “correct” one, and the extension to other similar small creatures such as spiders and millipedes is marked “loosely” or “non-technical” or something like that).  And while I’d like very much for insect not to mean “any of a remarkable variety of smallish arthropods”, I guess I have to admit that in some sense it does. Dictionaries record the meanings of words as they’re used – even if those definitions offend our haughty sense of what words should mean.  (If you’d like to continue quibbling – as I would – you’re forced to argue that “ordinary meaning” should mean what most people think, not what at least one person thinks, and also forced to gather evidence that the looser definitions really are uncommon usages.)

Having established that the ordinary meaning of “insect” includes spiders, the court then turns to a summary of taxonomic history demonstrating that the scientific exclusion of spiders from insects isn’t as old as you might think.  The court points out that the first scientific use of “insect” (by Philemon Holland in a 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History) included spiders, as did Linnaeus’s definition of the Class Insecta.  It then traces the exclusion of spiders to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who established the separate Class Arachnida. This passage struck me as (1) completely irrelevant to the case, for reasons the court had just taken some pains to establish; and (2) extremely impressive.

So: spiders aren’t insects to me (and we’ll see whether the poll data suggest that you agree).  But to insurance companies and the 11th District they are.  Dictionaries side with me in their primary definitions, but recognize enough loose usage in their secondary definitions that at least one Alabama couple won’t be collecting an insurance payout.  Does this bother me?  Well, honestly, yes.  Despite my being completely fine with “bug” meaning any insect, I just can’t hear “insect” as including spiders. I just can’t.  But I’m not in charge of the English language.  Although maybe I should be.

© Stephen Heard  June 23, 2020

Whatever I might think of the outcome, the decision is superbly written and it’s great reading.  Legal writing, like scientific writing, has a reputation for being tedious and turgid.  Kudos to the authors of this decision for challenging that.  You should read the whole thing.

Image: A Study of Butterflies, Moths, Spiders, and Insects by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-79). Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston; image in the public domain.

*^We’ll leave aside the issue of how many brown recluse spiders constitute an “infestation”, whether the spiders in question really were brown recluses, and so on.  These issues, while interesting, get in the way of the semantic quibbling I have planned.

**^Yes, you’re right, I did the viz. thing because it seemed amusingly legalistic.

***^While this isn’t relevant, because we’ve already established that the law turns on ordinary meanings rather than technical ones, it has the salutary effect of establishing that the court wasn’t just being ignorant.


26 thoughts on “Court: “Spiders are insects.” Biologists: “Say what?”

  1. Peter Apps

    This brings up a practical difficulty – what is a lay term for arthropods or for invertebrates, that can be used when writing for a general audience that includes people with English as their second of third language ?. As in “Mongooses eat small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and “insects, spiders, solifugids, millipedes etc”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Donald ZEPP

    After our bureaucrats decided that pickle relish can be considered a “vegetable,” nothing like this surprises me: “annoys” yes, but “surprises?” no.

    You’re right, though, the defendants should have simply stuck with “vermin” and left the hexapods out of this…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Michael James

    Every technical field has these problems. If you’ve ever referred to a person as an “idiot”, you likely didn’t mean its technical definition. It’s tempting to say that “insect” is different from a word like “idiot” that has taken on a nontechnical every-day meaning. However, given a long list of such words, we will tend to say that words from our own fields have technical meanings, and the other words have every-day meanings.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. jpschimel

    The legal context blocks claims due to loss for “birds, vermin, rodents, or insects.” In that context, I might say that the legal decision is correct–clearly the policy is saying we don’t cover damage from small animals, and so I would have to consider that included spiders, whether they are insects or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hi Josh – yes, I agree, and that’s why I’m a bit puzzled that the court went to so much trouble to rule that spiders are insects – because ruling they are vermin has exactly the same legal effect, and is a more obvious case to make. Go figure!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Manu Saunders

    Pliny always gets the credit, pretty sure he just copied Aristotle’s classification 🙂

    Wow, great story, thanks for sharing. So many interesting points arise about how we do scicomm, education etc. Should we be asking pest control/insurance companies to be more scientifically accurate, instead of using semantics to argue why they can continue using inaccurate words? I guess it’s easy to argue it doesn’t really matter, but wonder about future potential effects if this case becomes precedent

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Matt Shardlow

    Under the 1911 Animals Act the term animals was not defined, but the courts decided that insects were not animals, although somehow courts later allowed cases relating to spiders and crabs. Crayfish, crabs, cockles and similar are of course all fish in UK law.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. GK

    I’m totally on your side Mr. Heard.
    However, I’m a bit of statistician and I feel obliged to point out that we can’t really take that poll on face value. It will be heavily weighted by responses of spider-lovers such as me, or biology-savvy people, because they are mostly the ones who will have reached this article – your subscribers, people such as me who saw this in their recommendations (you know how Google works…), etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Szabolcs

    The problem with looking for the “ordinary”, and not scientific meaning of a term like “insect” is that it is simply not an ordinary term. It is a scientific term, with an easily identifiable Latin origin. As you say, “bug” would have been much more appropriate.

    This is why neither you nor I can can’t hear “insect” as including spiders. It is not “ordinary” use to include spiders. It’s plainly a misuse!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mr. Ohh's Sideways View

    I find it amazing that the court system has so much time on their hands to even think about this. Couldn’t the time be better used solving problems they were designed to solve instead of finding ways of nit-picking the language?
    Ok I’ll get of the soap box

    Stay well and laugh when you can

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John Foster

    First, I’m digging this blog. Well done.
    I can appreciate the court needing to be practical in this case, but what bugs me, ha-ha, is that by the court’s rationale, if enough people believe a falsehood, then some legal decisions, it appears, will bend the knee to that ignorance. It seems to me the court ended up saying something tantamount to, “Well, they weren’t technically correct; you should have known what they meant.” In this case, I’m not worried so much when it comes to distinctions among arthropods, but in an era where ‘alternate facts’, seem to attract many followers, might this become problematic? Beyond here.. ‘hic sunt dracones’, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, John.

      To some extent, I think this depends on what you mean by “enough people believe a falsehood”. The court is not arguing that “lots of people believe that spiders belong to what scientists now call the Class Insecta”. That would indeed be an “alternate facts” issue. Instead, it’s arguing that “lots of people use the word ‘insect’ to cover both Class Arachnida and Class Insecta”. That seems more like a language thing than an alternate facts thing. BUT – I can see where it could start to bleed through…

      Liked by 2 people

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  12. jpschimel

    The larger issue this brings up is “Who owns the word?” When we borrow words from common language and give them technical meaning within science, we don’t get to “own” the term. The common language uses and definitions remain 100% valid, in those common-language contexts and uses. The alternative is coin an entirely new term for something, but then nobody knows what it means! Thus, we are stuck with unintelligible terms or confusable terms, depending on whether you are speaking English (or any other language) or Science. Hence we also fight over tears like “significant”–can we use it to just mean “important”?

    Insect is a tricky one because its deep etymology goes to the Greek for “animal notched or cut into” [OED]. Segmentation is core to the term, which kind of leaves out spiders, doesn’t it? But the OED also acknowledges the wider and more generic uses of the term:

    1. A small invertebrate animal, usually having a body divided into segments, and several pairs of legs, and often winged; in popular use comprising, besides the animals scientifically so called (see 2), many other arthropods, as spiders, mites, centipedes, wood-lice, etc., and other invertebrates, as the ‘coral-insect’; formerly (and still by the uneducated) applied still more widely, e.g. to earthworms, snails, and even some small vertebrates, as frogs and tortoises.

    Tortoises? Really?


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