What is the origin of the name “centipede”?



Centipedes are fascinating arthropods that have remained a topic of interest and speculation for centuries. These creatures have long, segmented bodies and numerous legs that allow them to move with impressive speed and agility. Despite their common name, centipedes do not actually have a hundred legs. In this article, we will explore the origin of the name “centipede” and investigate the fascinating history and biology of these intriguing creatures.

Etymology of “centipede”

The word “centipede” comes from the Latin term centipeda, which translates to “hundred-footed”. This name is somewhat misleading, as most species of centipedes do not have exactly one hundred legs. Instead, the number of legs can vary widely depending on the species, with some having as few as 30 legs and others having as many as 354 legs. Despite this variation, the name “centipede” has remained in use due to its long history and widespread recognition.

Greek and Latin roots

The roots of the name “centipede” can be traced back to the ancient Greek and Latin languages. In Greek, the word “kentron” means “spike” or “sting”, while “pede” means “foot”. The Latin term “centum” means “hundred”, and “pes” means “foot”. These roots reflect the sharp, spiky appearance of centipedes, as well as their many legs.

The anatomy of centipedes

Centipedes are arthropods, meaning they have jointed appendages and an exoskeleton. Their bodies are elongated and segmented, and they have one pair of legs per segment. The first pair of legs is modified into fangs, which are used to inject venom into their prey. Centipedes have a wide range of sizes, from tiny species that are only a few millimeters long to giant centipedes that can grow up to a foot in length.

Early descriptions of centipedes

Centipedes have been known to humans for centuries, and they have been described in many ancient texts and works of art. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about centipedes in his works on natural history, describing them as creatures that could move quickly and were often found in damp places. Ancient Roman writers also mentioned centipedes, with Pliny the Elder writing about their venomous bite and the many remedies that were used to treat it.

The significance of the number of legs

The number of legs on a centipede can vary widely depending on the species, but the number is often used to distinguish different groups of centipedes. For example, centipedes with fewer than 30 legs are known as “paucipes”, while those with more than 30 legs are called “multipedes”. Some species have evolved to have a specific number of legs, such as the genus Scolopendra, which typically has 21 pairs of legs.

Centipedes in mythology and folklore

Centipedes have played a role in many mythologies and folklores throughout history. In ancient Greek mythology, the centaur Chiron was said to have been transformed into a centipede by Zeus as punishment for his involvement in a conflict between the gods. In Japanese folklore, the giant centipede “mukade” is a fearsome creature that is said to be able to kill humans with its venomous bite.

The evolution of centipedes

Centipedes are believed to have evolved from a group of early arthropods known as myriapods. Fossil evidence shows that centipedes have existed for at least 416 million years, with many early species having been much larger than modern centipedes. Over time, centipedes have evolved a range of adaptations that have allowed them to survive in a variety of environments and to prey on a wide range of animals.

Centipede diversity and distribution

There are over 3,000 species of centipede known to science, with many more likely to be discovered in the coming years. Centipedes are found all over the world, with some species living in arid deserts and others thriving in damp rainforests. They play an important role in many ecosystems as predators, helping to control populations of insects and other small animals.


The name “centipede” has a long and fascinating history, reflecting the ancient Greek and Latin roots of the word. Despite their often-misleading name, centipedes are fascinating creatures with a range of adaptations and behaviors that have allowed them to survive for millions of years. From the early descriptions of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder to the modern study of their biology and ecology, centipedes continue to captivate and intrigue us.

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