A look back at the classic urban legend which states cockroach eggs incubated in a woman’s mouth after she licked an envelope.
“A woman walks into a hospital emergency room with a lump on her tongue, the result of a paper cut from licking an envelope. The doctor lances the pustule to drain the the infection and out walks a live cockroach….”
It’s an urban legend as old as the internet itself, and it has been making the rounds again as the myth’s vile nature preys on basic human revulsion. There is, however, no truth to this story whatsoever, as it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
The origin of this story is unclear, but it is one of many urban legends in relation to the licking of envelopes. Some variations of urban mythologies in regards to envelope licking date back several decades. In 1996, an episode of Seinfeld featured a variation of the urban legend, when the character Susan (George’s fiancee) dies after licking cheap wedding invitations that were covered in a toxic substance. In 1999, a rumor spread claiming that several people fell dead after licking the seals of automated teller machine (ATM) envelopes laced with cyanide. These stories were also proven to be false, with no such reports from any reputable news outlet. A version of the current story, as seen in this 2007 post, reads:
One day a girl licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge. That very day the lady found a cut on her tongue. 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 cockroach crawled out!!!! This is a true story reported on CNN. Andy Hume wrote: Hey, I used to work in an envelope factory. You wouldn’t believe the…..things that float around in those gum applicator trays. I haven’t licked an envelope for years!’ I used to work for a print shop (32 years ago) and we were told NEVER to lick the envelopes. I never understood why until I had to go into storage and pull out 2500 envelopes that were already printed and saw several squads of cockroaches roaming around inside a couple of boxes with eggs everywhere. They eat the glue on the envelopes.
In the early 2000s, the cockroach-on-the-tongue version began to spread. A similar narrative at that time also involved post office employees who licked stamps rather than moistening them with sponges.
Decades ago, a similar urban legend told of a woman with a “sore” which eventually exploded and hundreds of tiny spiders emerged. While the rumors above sound plausible – and horrifying – to the casual reader, they are not backed by scientific corroboration.
Female cockroaches produce eggs cases (called ootheca) which may contain as many as 40-50 cockroach eggs. Certain species carry the cases until they’re ready to hatch, while others drop them in hidden places. These cases are protected by a protein-like covering which hardens when exposed to air. Cockroach embryos cannot survive outside these sacs, which would be broken down by the acid in human saliva. If an egg case could somehow survive anywhere in the human body, the unfortunate victim would be subject to a full blown hatch of many young cockroaches rather than a single insect as the urban legends above state. It should also be pointed out that cockroach eggs are too large to avoid detection, either visually or by touch of the tongue. And finally, a cut on a person’s tongue large enough to hold a roach egg case would likely bleed considerably, to the point that it would require inspection by the victim or even a medical professional.
2014: The Myth Returns
The cockroach-on-the-tongue urban legend has once again surfaced in 2014. This is perhaps in part due to a real report in January of an Australian man who had a 2-centimeter cockroach removed from his ear. After attempting to extract the critter from his ear with a vacuum and water, the man had to seek medical attention, where the cockroach was eventually removed with forceps. Days after this story ran, the cockroach envelope urban legend received renewed attention with heavy social media sharing.
Taco Bell Variant
A modern version revolving Taco Bell has also been seen in recent social media circulation. This variant reads:
Sara was driving home from work one day and she was starving. Not wanting to worry about cooking dinner once she got home, she decided to stop for some take out. She pulled into her local Taco Bell and ordered a burrito. She enjoyed her quick meal and when she was done she headed home.
When she woke up the next day, her tongue felt sore and a little swollen. It bothered her all day, so she went to see her doctor to find out what was wrong. The doctor didn’t find anything on his initial examination, so he told her to come back if it got worse.
Days later her tongue swelled up considerably and became very sore. She went back to the doctor and he decided to do a minor surgery. When the doctor had cut open her tongue, he found a cyst among her taste buds filled with cockroach eggs. They traced the eggs back to the burrito from her fast food dinner.
Google Trends History
The Google Trends graph below reveals the search term interest in “cockroach eggs envelope” over time. Interest appears to have surged in January 2014 after the above-mentioned news reports of a man who had a cockroach removed from his ear. Subsequently, significant interest has declined to the point that surges are not registering as peaks on Google Trends.
There are no documented cases in the media, or medical literature, that indicate this decades-old urban legend ever happened. Cockroach eggs cannot survive in the manner described above. The space and conditions of the human mouth would not be able to successfully harbor a living cockroach egg case.
Have you seen this urban legend in circulation? Tell us what you’ve heard in the comments below.
Updated June 13, 2016
Originally published January 2014