Fear of Licking

Woman supposedly finds cockroach larvae "in" her tongue after licking envelopes

Young businesswoman licking envelope seal at desk
Kelvin Murray/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In the world according to urban folklore, horrors await us at every turn, lurking even in the most ordinary places. We are warned to beware of pay-phone coin slots booby-trapped with infectious needles, chicken sandwiches pocked with pus-filled tumors and toilet seats infested with venomous spiders.

Is nothing safe anymore? Consider how dangerous it can be just to lick an envelope.

In 1999, rumor had it that a number of people fell down dead after moistening the glue on ATM deposit envelopes with their tongues.

Why? Because, supposedly, someone had adulterated the glue with cyanide, a fatal poison. The moral of the story was clear: envelope licking can be hazardous to your health. Don't do it.

Not enough people paid heed, apparently, as evidenced by the following report sent to me by a reader in January 2000:

I have a co-worker who states that his wife (who is a nurse) witnessed a situation involving someone who licked an envelope and then "hatched" a cockroach from her tongue. Supposedly while licking an egg-infested glue strip on an envelope, she got a paper cut. This then got "infected" but when she went to the hospital to have it examined, the doctor made an incision to release the pus and a roach crawled out.

Huh. Not to impugn the integrity of our correspondent's co-worker's spouse, but... baloney! The entire scenario smacked of urban legend — so much so that I demanded to know where the alleged incident took place.

Virginia, I was told.

'If You Lick Your Envelopes ... You Won't Anymore!'

Picture my skeptical reaction when, just a few days later, I began receiving copies of a forwarded email claiming that precisely the same thing had just happened to a postal worker in California:

If you lick your envelopes... You won't anymore!!!!!

A woman was working in a post office in California, one day she licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge. That very day the lady cut her tongue on the envelope.

A week later, she noticed an abnormal swelling of her tongue. She went to the doctor, and they found nothing wrong. Her tongue was not sore or anything.

A couple of days later, her tongue started to swell more, and it began to get really sore, so sore, that she could not eat. She went back to the hospital, and demanded something be done. The doctor, took an x-ray of her tongue, and noticed a lump. He prepared her for minor surgery.

When the doctor cut her tongue open, a live roach crawled out. There were roach eggs on the seal of the envelope. The egg was able to hatch inside of her tongue, because of her saliva. It was warm and moist...

This is a true story... Pass it on.

A true story? I think not. The separate accounts you have just read, the first set in Virginia and the second set clear across the country in California, arrived in my inbox five days apart (and more have arrived since). They are variants of the same urban legend. Any way you tell it, the urban legend is false.

A Cockroach Primer

Consider this. A pregnant cockroach carries her eggs in a hard capsule called an ootheca, in which they incubate, intact, until the larvae (or "nymphs") hatch, bursting the capsule open from the inside. The eggs themselves are tiny and delicate, and couldn't survive at all outside the ootheca, let alone flourish within the body of a mammalian host. It would be highly improbable, is what I'm saying, to find viable cockroach eggs strewn about on random surfaces — least of all on the folded flap of an envelope.

Consider, too, the logical inconsistencies in the story. How is it that when the victim visited her doctor the first time, reporting a paper cut and showing visible signs of "abnormal swelling," he found "nothing wrong"? And what was the point, during the second doctor visit, of X-raying the poor woman's tongue? The "lump" allegedly detected by the x-ray was already in plain sight.

Errant Insects

Infestation legends derive from and play on people's horror of insects. The subtype in which "creepy crawlers" invade the human body provoke an especially visceral response and are particularly popular for that reason. "Roach Eggs on Envelopes" is very similar to the 1998-vintage "Roach Eggs in Tacos" legend, wherein cockroach larvae ingested in a fast food restaurant purportedly incubated in the lining of the victim's mouth.

In a general way, both stories resemble "The Spider Bite," an older legend about a traveler in a foreign country who discovers a seemingly innocuous insect bite on her body after an outing:

...She goes to her doctor, but he says that he can see nothing suspicious and that she should not worry. And then one day, while brushing her hair — not blow-drying — her brush accidentally touches the spot and the sore bursts open and hundreds of tiny spiders are running all over her.

The Story's the Thing

It's not as if wayward insects never, ever find their way into crevices of the human body — they sometimes do, to the horror not only of the victim but of anyone who happens to hear the tale.

But the bulk of infestation legends are just that: legends. They are concocted out of the teeniest, tiniest grains of truth, a generous sprinkling of latent dread, and a heaping helping of imagination. It's hard to resist sharing them with the ones you love.

Reuters ran a news story a few years back about a British woman who complained to her doctor of a headache and "strange noises in her ear." On examining her, the doctor found a large spider lodged next to her eardrum.

"The doctor removed the spider with a syringe," the article continued, "but also raised an unsavory possibility — that the arachnid was a female intent on laying eggs."

No spider eggs were found during the examination, however. So, why raise the "unsavory possibility" at all?

'Tis obvious: to make a good story that much better.