"No-see-um" is a term that has descended on the Lowcountry like a swarm of locusts, err biting midges, err Yankees.
It's not a true Lowcountry word, says a resident whose people go back to the Colonial Purrysburg settlement near Hardeeville. Her grandparents had a cottage at Folly Field on Hilton Head Island before there was a bridge, and on a trip over from Ridgeland they may pass one or two cars.
This pedigree is why I trust her cordial note about me using the term "no-see-ums" in my definition of the Lowcountry.
"I had never, ever heard the word noseeums except in books I read until Sun City citizens began their migration South," she writes. "I have talked this over with others and they concur.
"The correct Lowcountry title for any flying, biting or non-biting insect is gnats."
The term "no-see-ums" was used here before Sun City came along, but I don't doubt that it's an imported word.
I conferred with no greater authority than Pierre McGowan, born on St. Helena Island in 1926.
"We called them two things," he said. "We mainly referred to them as gnats. But we referred to the big ones that you can see flying around your face as 'dog-a-- gnats' for obvious reasons."
Now, if this is getting too scientific for you, suffice it to say that if it weren't for air conditioning, no visitors would have stayed long enough to import cute words like "no-see-ums."
Pierre writes in "Tales of the Barrier Islands of Beaufort County, South Carolina" that it took Lowcountry ingenuity to survive the gnats in their camps down the river.
They used to mix two parts kerosene and one part motor oil (any grade) and paint it liberally on all screen surfaces about an hour before dark.
"The 'no-see-ums' would come at first dark, but the instant they alighted on the screen the oil coated their wings and they died," he wrote.
And when the screens got clogged with oil and dead gnats? "Wearing rubber gloves, simply wash them off using a soft cloth and gasoline."
Do not try this at home.
Pierre's theory is that the American Indians didn't complain about the Lowcountry stinging gnats because they never took baths.
On the other hand, mouthwash is the trick for two-time RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing champion Boo Weekley, a Southern outdoorsman.
Tommy Braswell reported in the Charleston Post and Courier that Weekley was told "to pour a little Listerine mouthwash on a napkin and pat it on your exposed skin and the gnats will leave you alone."
To which Weekley added: "And if you have bad breath, all you have to do is lick your arms."
Pierre said it's never been a secret that people from off can't stand our gnats, sand gnats, sand fleas, sand flies, midges or no-see-ums.
He quotes his friend Beekman Webb speculating that without air conditioning the population of Beaufort County today would be about what it was in 1960.
"You got to learn to survive," Pierre said. "I've gotten to where I let them bite. In other words, ignore them. You just have to have a strong constitution."
Because a dog-a-- gnat by any other name is still a dog-a-- gnat.
- How to take a bite out of life in the Lowcountry , Nov. 14, 2013