What's In A Name?

by William H. Amos, Vermont, USA


It's serious. Without a system for organizing plants and animals by giving them specific names, we'd have no idea of their relationship to one another and within the great scheme of things.

Even in ancient times organisms were given identifying names, as they are to this day both in modern science and in remaining Stone Age cultures, as in New Guinea (where organismal names are more complex than we can comprehend). Aristotle himself was an ardent classifier and namer of organisms, especially those from the Aegean Sea.

At first plant and animal names depended upon where you lived and which language you spoke. In the Western World, as Latin became the common language of scholars, descriptive names of animals and plants were provided in Latin, but sometimes they were long and involved, without any rules to follow. Translated into English, the Latin name of a rhinoceros might have been something like, "Animal larger than a horse with a hide like an elephant and a horn on its head like a unicorn." But a cow would simply be "cow"—or Bos.

Along came Linnaeus, the Swede who devised a system of giving every living thing two Latin names, genus and species (ex. Canis lupus, the wolf), then lumping them into ever larger groups, all with Latin names—family, order, class, phylum, kingdom. The system made good sense immediately, and after more than 250 years we still employ the concept precisely as he laid it down.

Naming a creature (or plant, fungus, or microbe) is challenging. Quite apart from making sure it really is a new species hitherto undescribed in science, you need to understand at least the rudiments of Latin. But education in this classical language throughout the United States is deplorably weak, totally lacking in most schools. Few institutions anywhere in the country offer quality Latin instruction, but in those that do, any one of their graduates who goes into the life sciences and has an opportunity to name a new species of plant or animal, is going to do so with accuracy and panache.

Not so most biologists, who somehow pick up a bit of knowledge about Latin endings, then go off in goofy fashion creating a name, believing it cute or amusing or—sometimes—insulting to a competing scientist.

Most do abide by technical rules, however, because you can't use the same name given another organism. You have to check priorities: if somebody named "your" critter two hundred years ago with a different name, even if it is misspelled or descriptively wrong, it is the one that must be used. So state the internationally accepted Rules of Zoological Nomenclature.

This taxes the biologist. If one is as humorless as the media often suggest, the newly-created name is blandly descriptive—in other words, blah. But if the namer is creative and puckish, and uses Latin properly, what emerges catches the eye and sticks in memory. Unfortunately some taxonomists are notable for their puerile foolishness. This bestows little credit upon the offending biologist, and certainly no honor upon the unwitting organism that is now stuck with an awful name.

Because I've always been interested in scientific terminology and have had to bestow names upon small creatures I've come across, I have several dictionaries devoted exclusively to this arcane process. I also have a few modest years of Latin in my background.

Recently I came across Mark Isaak's fascinating website that demonstrates in detail the wonder and the absurdity of some biological names. Most of those that follow are taken from his "Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature," and are too good not to share with readers. Some are clever, some apt, some—stupid. Be prepared.

There are puns aplenty: Abra cadabra (a snail); Agra phobia (a beetle); Atrochus (a pretty little rotifer); Castnia inca dincadu (a castiniid moth); Heerz tooya (a wasp); Lalapa lusa (another wasp); Pieza kake (a tiny fly); Pieza pi (a closely related fly); Pison eyvae (a moth); Peissa roni (another kind of fly); Verae peculya (a puzzling sort of wasp); Vini vidivici (an extinct parrot); Ytu brutus (a water beetle).

How about a wasp named after an entomologist, Henry Townes— Townesilitus?

One of my favorite protozoans dating from microscopic adventures in boyhood is Coleps hirtus, which interestingly translates into "a hairy bend to the knees." Looking at it, I understand—sort of. But an unfortunate beetle has the name of Colon rectum, which is by far the mildest of some really, really rude Latinized names unable to be published in a family journal.

Others names simply sound funny when spoken aloud: Abudefduf, Boops, Dasypops, Pawpawsaurus, Upupa epops, Crex crex, Stupidogobius (I take exception here, for gobies are smart little fishes).

Then there are critter names that don't sound as though they should be, but are: Anticlimax, Banjos, Disaster, Lo, Oops, This, Trivia. Another one of my own favorite microscopic animals is Chaos chaos—and it isn't chaotic in the least.

The names of wives and girl friends have been tagged: Barbara, Doris, Evita, Gwendolina, Lucia, Norma, Rita, Susana. Somehow an unpleasant prize fighter got into the mix—Tyson.

We're not done yet. How about Aa, Aaata, Zyzzyva, Abciththys, Zaa, Ninini? And the alliterative Cedusa medusa, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, and Saurus soarus (a gliding lizard), which suggest their namers got stuck in the groove.

Then a flip-flop: Asio otus is the long-eared owl, but Otus asio is the eastern screech owl. No imagination here, because in Latin this is simply "owl-owl."

Aegrotocatellus (an extinct trilobite) translates from the Latin as "sick puppy," which may be imaginative, but is a non sequitur. Megapnosaurus, a long-gone dinosaur, renders rightly as "big dead lizard." And Vampyroteuthis infernalis (a terrifying squid you wouldn't want to meet) translates to "vampire squid from Hell."

For years I used to challenge students to find the longest biological name known. It was that of the common green sea urchin in New England coastal waters, a creature I know well and admire: Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis (a "prickly sphere" named for Professor Dröbach).

But now, perusing Isaak's website, I find the sea urchin's name no longer takes the cake. One little shrimp jumps ahead as Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis. Try that out. And the winner, an African fish, has a label I can't (and won't) attempt. Here it is: Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta. A partial explanation: Brachyta is the genus name ("shorty?"), followed by a species, followed by a subspecies with the same name (an obscure syllogism); followed by a variety that says a mouthful, essentially a commentary on how the fish's dark, dishlike shoulder skeleton is assembled. The guy who made this up is someone I intend to avoid. And I'll never ask that quiz question again.

Those Americans my age will remember a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher from the 1930s and rejoice that he is now further immortalized as a spider, Mastagophora dizzydeani. That's not all. Here are more honors and recognitions: Campsicnemius charliechaplini, Sula abbotti costelloi. The hilarious modern cartoonist Gary Larson is also known as an owl louse, Strigiplius garylarsoni, and is delighted to be so honored.

After all these absurdities, I must reassure readers that most scientific names are in fact useful, accurate, often elegantly descriptive. Many retain their original, classical, everyday names: Equus the horse, Homo the human, Panthera tigris the tiger. They really do help us as we study and survey this marvelous world of life. And a few come close to poetry: one of the loveliest, most graceful jellyfish I've ever followed underwater is the "superb golden one," Chrysaora, which tells it like it is. Unfortunately it stings like a red-hot poker.

Mercifully this column now ends. You've run out of patience, I've run out of space (but not examples). Mark Isaak's internet website "Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature", from which many of the above were borrowed, has not, and never will, run out of curiosities as more are added each day. Visit his home page and its links for more examples—if you can stand it.

All comments to the author Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('wamos','')">Bill Amos are welcomed.

© 2002 William H. Amos


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