Wonderful Latin Names, Part I: Upupa epops

(Image by Dûrzan cîrano, from Wikipedia.org)

Our subject today is formal scientific names for species (or “Latin names”, although they need not actually be derived from Latin).  Few things about biology seem to puzzle and annoy laypeople, not to mention undergraduate students, more than our habit of using long, arcane, and sometimes unpronounceable names for the species we study.  (Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis, anyone?).  We can explain why these names serve an essential purpose, and we can handle them more adroitly with experience; but if truth be told, we don’t necessarily enjoy using Latin names.  But there are exceptions, and this post is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series celebrating wonderful Latin names.

What do I mean by a “wonderful” Latin name?  Well, I don’t mean Latin names that are funny, although I enjoy those too (I mentioned a few in a recent paper, and a much longer list can be found here).  Instead, I’m going to write about Latin names that are cleverly appropriate, etymologically interesting, beautiful to hear, or (like today’s) just plain fun to say.

So, let’s put the spotlight on the hoopoe (a crested, ground-feeding bird of Africa, Europe and Asia that’s related to hornbills).  Its Latin name is Upupa epops.  That’s right, Upupa epops, which just marvelously fun to say out loud (go ahead, try it a few times; I’ll wait).  I can’t think of a Latin name with better rhythm.

But why does the hoopoe carry this wonderful name?  Well, it turns out it’s hard to be sure.  It was named by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae, and Linneaus didn’t explain his etymologies.  The species name epops seems to be a transliteration of the Greek common name for the hoopoe, while Upupa is usually explained as being onomatopoetic.  The hoopoe’s call does sound vaguely like that (it’s closer to “oop-oop-oop”, rather like a mourning dove on speed); and Linneaus did name birds onomatopoetically from their calls (notably the corncrake, Crex crex).  But I’m not sure that’s all there is to it.  Linneaus included in the genus Upupa three other birds (the northern bald ibis, the red-billed chough, and what was probably a bird of paradise), and these were united not by their sound but by bill and tongue morphology.  Another possibility (thanks, Wikipedia, but citation needed) is that Upupa is a mangling of the French name for the hoopoe, “huppe”, which also means “crest” – three of the four birds in Linneaus’ Upupa have conspicuous crests, and Linneaus mentions the crest but not the sound in describing Upupa epops.  Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the lucky combination of the hoopoe’s crest, its French common name, and the sound of its call made “Upupa” as irresistible to coin as it now is to say.

And thanks to Terry Wheeler, since posting this I’ve learned that Upupa epops hosts a biting louse called Upupicola upupae.  This might even be more fun to say than Upupa epops itself, although the louse is arguably less photogenic than the bird.

Finally, I can’t resist one last hoopoe fact.  According to the 12th-century Cambridge Bestiary, “If anybody smears himself with the blood of [the hoopoe] on his way to bed, he will have nightmares about suffocating devils”.  If you were planning such a thing, you probably deserve the nightmares; but I’m warning you anyway. You’re welcome.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) Jan 11 2015


26 thoughts on “Wonderful Latin Names, Part I: Upupa epops

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  2. David Edwards

    There is an entire website devoted to taxonomic curiosities of this sort, including bad puns, word games, organisms named after people (in some cases with hilarious results, in others,. tragic results for the organisms in question), which can be found here:


    Oh,and there are some real gems lurking in the text of the book “The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera” by the late A. Maitland Emmet, whose own name alone deserves some sort of award. Emmet suggested the possibility that the various moths in the Genus Catocala, with specific names all related to brides and marriage, arose because of a Swedish custom for brides to wear red petticoats on their wedding nights, and the moths in question have red underwing markings that have the requisite appearance. Was Linnaeus gazing upon some nubile young maiden through his window, when working on this group of organisms? 🙂


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