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Mosquito (plural Mosquitoes or Mosquitos)

noun [countable]

an electronic device that produces a high-pitched sound which can only be heard by children and younger adults, used as a way of discouraging young people from loitering in particular locations

'As many as 3,500 Mosquitoes are estimated to be in operation across the UK to disperse children and teenagers in public areas such as parks and shopping centres …'

The Edinburgh Journal 26th February 2008

A young woman and her mother walk out of a convenience store. The young woman suddenly turns to her mother, wincing with discomfort, saying: 'Aargh, that's horrible!', whilst her mother, by contrast, remains unperturbed. The explanation for this situation? – the Mosquito, the new sonic deterrent that's popping up in public places across the UK.

The Mosquito is an electronic device which emits loud, high-frequency sounds, so-named because the sounds resemble those of a buzzing insect. Because the ability to hear high-frequency sounds deteriorates as people grow older (a phenomenon technically known as presbycusis), the ultra-sonic tones produced by the Mosquito are most likely to be heard by children, teenagers and younger adults, generally anyone under the age of 25. When the Mosquito is turned on, older adults will usually only hear a faint buzz, but younger people and children should hear a very annoying noise.

despite its alleged effectiveness, the Mosquito is a controversial device, sparking opposition from human rights groups

In an effort to combat the anti-social behaviour associated with groups of youths in public places, over the last couple of years many shopkeepers across the UK have chosen to install the Mosquito outside their premises. Gangs of teenagers congregating and hanging about in shop entrance ways and other public places can sometimes cause serious problems, from intimidation of staff and customers through to actual physical assault. Many retailers who have installed the Mosquito device are reporting a dramatic reduction in such problems as a result.

Despite its alleged effectiveness, the Mosquito is a controversial device, sparking opposition from human rights groups. In 2008 a major national campaign entitled 'Buzz Off', calling for the device to be banned, was launched by the National Youth Agency, the Children's Commissioner for England and human rights group Liberty. However, though the legal status of the Mosquito is dubious in relation to particular environmental laws, at present the UK government has no plans to ban it.

In a bizarre twist, the teenage targets of the Mosquito have subsequently used it to their advantage. The noise of the Mosquito has now been adapted into an 'adult-proof' ringtone nicknamed Teen Buzz. Being too high-pitched for most adults to hear, teenagers are using it in schools and other places where mobile phones are forbidden.

If you'd like to find out whether you're young enough to be susceptible to the Mosquito, click on this link to hear the sound it makes.

Background – Mosquito

The Mosquito was invented in 2005 by Howard Stapleton, a security consultant from Wales. The idea for the Mosquito originated in his youth, when at the age of 12, he visited a factory with his father, then a manufacturing executive. Opening the door to a room where workers were using high-frequency welding equipment, Howard couldn't bear to go inside because of the noise. When he complained, the adults around him asked: "What noise?".

The Mosquito entered the mainstream market in 2006. The device's longer term legal status may determine its linguistic fate, though there is currently plenty of evidence of use. The plural form follows the model of the insect, occurring as both Mosquitoes and Mosquitos.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 10th March 2008.

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