A Whimsical Glossary

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



Bureaucrats, military analysts, and scientists have a deep and abiding love for outrageously complex and hyper-convoluted terminology, jargon, acronyms, and project names. Consider the descriptive name for the U.S. air (most helicopter) invasion of Grenada: “a pre-dawn vertical insertion”–sounds slightly obscene, doesn’t it? When I was studying German, I was told that Hitler tried to “purify” the German language and get rid of all the “foreign” words, such as, “Dynamo” (derived from the Greek) and that some bureaucrat replaced this nice, compact six-letter word with Wassertreibselektrizitätsherstellungsmaschine (probably an apocryphal story, but then again...). In the sciences, chemists win first prize for linguistic outrages. Consider this gem:


This word has appeared in the American Chemical Society's Chemical Abstracts and is thus considered by some to be the longest real word.”

However, biologists run a close second and so, I thought it might be fun to bend, twist, and play with some of the terms and names that the amateur naturalist and microscopist has to contend with in trying to understand the marvelous world of living creatures.

This will be a linguistic conceptual game with virtually no holds barred so, you may have to run these past your brain more than once to penetrate some of the perverse wordplay to which I am addicted, since I am a fan of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Let’s begin with 'filogeny' which is the study of the origin of very thin, flaky pastry which is appropriate because, if scientists are involved, one can expect it to be flaky. The modern biologists insist on creating an enormous hierarchy of fila and we have everything from, at the very basic level, prot-tists and anti-tists, and then on up at the invertebrate level, the tunic-capes (Clark Kent in his guise as Superman is an excellent example).

Let’s begin with the fila which used to constitute what was termed Protozoa. First of all, there is the filum Sarcodina which consists of a bunch of jelly-like blobs (amoebae) which are both sarcastic and sardonic. The next filum is the Flagellata which is a group of microscopic monks dating back to the Middle Ages who liked to whip themselves and each other. Some have only a couple of whips whereas others have hundreds and many of them like to live in communities like Synura; the very name suggests aggression. Many of these are vegetarians and when you examine them under the microscope you will discover a range of green coloration. (You know the definition of vegetarian=bad hunter.) The third filum is the Sporozoa–boring! They’re not motile and they’re parasitic. Then, there are the Sillyata (sometimes spelled Ciliata) and they are indeed silly–swim, swim, swim–restless, in unending motion–and nosy! They poke and probe into everything that happens to cross their paths. And even their names are silly: Pair-amecium; there’s only one, not a pair, except when they’re doing the naughty stuff. And then there’s Spirostomum ambiguum; it’s not spiral, it’s not tome-shaped, nor is there anything ambiguous about it: there it is swimming around in front of you. Or consider Eurocentrum turbo: a preposterous name because it’s found in many places outside of the center of Europe and it doesn’t like turbid water. And then there’s Climacostomum which has nothing to do either with climbing or climate. I think that what happened was that a bunch of protozoologists, who had been watching too much Monty Python, particularly the Silly Walks sketch, got a Silly Names conference together so that they could perpetrate their juvenile jokes on an unsuspecting populace whilst they sniggered in the backrooms of bars and bistros.

But, mind you, it isn’t just the protozoologists who indulge in this adolescentry and adultery; consider the coelenteratologists (who are trying to sell (coel–a coded clue) us a huge parcel of terminological rubbish. Jellyfish!!! Do they really expect us to buy into Blueberry Bass or Strawberry Shad? These creatures are not fish and they’re not made of jelly as is immediately obvious to anyone who has ever tried to dissect one or take a nibble of one on which occasion, you quickly discover this ain’t no jellyroll. Consider that thuggish group called Siphon-ophores. These clearly, as their name suggests, sneak up on large ships and steal their fuel. And some German biologist, who must have had a grudge against Portugal, gave that odd colonial “jellyfish”, Physalia, the popular name “Portuguese Man-o’-War”. This creature looks nothing at all like a warship and it doesn’t even have a hose to use on a fuel tank in order to siphon.

These scientists even created a special filum of Tenni-fores which is really an insult to our intelligence, combining as it does, elements from 2 quite disparate and incompatible sports-tennis and golf. (Can’t you just hear that smug, self-satisfied, inebriated backroom sniggering?)

Then there is the filum containing the Platyhelminth, which are flatworms, which term, I take it, is supposed to suggest to us an association with the Australian monotreme, the platypus, which is neither flat nor related to felines. Furthermore, to call it a monotreme suggests a relationship to the Trematode which are also types of parasitic worms and have nothing to with toads except to sometimes infect them. It is clear that we are beginning to accumulate evidence of a giant nomenclatural conspiracy on the part of biologists and, as we proceed, it will be evident that we need to create an Internet data bank to expose this chicanery; we’ll call it RELATE: Revolutionary Evolutionary Latter Day Analyses of Taxonomic Expression. We must be ever vigilant, for sometimes these sinister taxonomists use perfectly reasonable and intelligent language to convince us that they are not trying to deceive us. Consider the Platyhelminth, Planaria; it clearly is plain except for the goofy sort of eyes that make it look a bit like something out of a Disney cartoon. This organism was originally discovered by the great Russian worm person Pyotr Thathothtrouth (which was originally Sasostrovitch, but poor Pyotr had a lisp and so the spelling was altered) and this is why the name of the filum for these organisms became Platyhelminthes–the flatworms from the hellhole of Minsk or Minthk as Pyotr pronounced it.

Then, there are the Rotifera, the ferocious rotators; however, the only ones that really rotate are colonial forms such as Conochilus. Another name for rotifers is “wheel animalcules” which is another bit of terminological hocus-pocus; they don’t have wheels anymore than they have pistons or drive shafts. What they have is 2 quasi-hemispheres which are heavily ciliated and can be extended or retracted for feeding and swimming.

The range of misleading language is staggering. Consider the ostracods–they are not remotely related to fish nor are they in a situation where they need to be concerned about exclusion or exile. I can see aquatic microscopists at protests outside the International Academy of Zoological Nomenclature with signs reading: “STOP OSTRACIZING OSTRACODS!”

Some names just sound rather silly right off, like sipunculids. Others should clearly be XXX-rated like priapulids. It is evident that biologists can not be left to their own devices and so RELATE must take over the task and purge the terminology to instill a sense of balance.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the September 2016 edition of Micscape Magazine.

Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor .

Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK website at Microscopy-UK .

© Onview.net Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved.
Main site is at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk .