Wonderful Latin Names, Part II: Abudefduf saxatilis

(Image by Klaus Rudloff, kdrudloff@web.de, via http://www.biolib.cz)

Today’s Wonderful Latin Name is that of the Sergeant Major: Abudefduf saxatilis. The Sergeant Major is a common damselfish of the tropical Atlantic, often the first fish a new snorkeler or diver learns because it’s beautiful, abundant, and distinctive. Like the hoopoe (Upupa epops, the subject of Wonderful Latin Names, Part I), the Sergeant Major has a Latin name that’s both fun to say and etymologically interesting. I was first drawn to the name because of its peculiar rhythm: Abudefduf saxatilis. It seems to have a time-signature change between genus and species, which arises because the species name is conventionally Latin, while the genus name is Arabic.

The name Abudefduf saxatilis is often misattributed to Linneaus, but in fact Linneaus appears to be responsible only for the species epithet saxatilis (which means “living among rocks”, and which is a common epithet for species that do so). The generic name Abudefduf was coined by Linnaeus’s student Peter Forsskål, a Finn who was living in Sweden when he joined a Danish expedition to Yemen (phew!). Forsskål died of malaria before returning, and in fact the expedition’s only survivor was the mathematician Carsten Niebuhr (so Yemen’s name at the time, Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia”, was tinged with irony then as it is now). Niebuhr arranged for posthumous publication of Forsskål’s notes in 1775, including the description of Abudefduf and the reassignment of Linnaeus’ Chaetodon saxatilis to that genus.

The curious name Abudefduf has spawned some etymological confusion, probably because Western biologists (whatever their first language) tend to pick up some rudimentary Greek and Latin – but rarely (any longer) any Arabic. If non-speakers know anything about Arabic, it’s that Abu commonly means “father”.  As a result, plenty of sources (including Fishbase) assert that via that meaning, Abudefduf’s name refers to its aggressive, territorial behaviour. But something smells fishy here (sorry), because this doesn’t actually make much sense: since when is a reference to fatherhood the best way to suggest aggression? And why ignore the defduf?  A much more likely reading is that in Arabic, Abu also has the sense “one with the attribute in question”, while daff means “side” and douf means either “mixed” or “wet”. So, Abudefduf means “the one with mixed/wet sides”, which is an apt and cleverly punning description of a prominently striped fish (A. saxatilis’s markings are typical of the genus).

Now, I knew almost none of this before writing this piece. I’ve loved the name Abudefduf saxatilis for decades, since I first encountered the Sergeant Major during a field course in Jamaica – but I loved it for its sound, its rhythm, and the oddity of a “Latin” name based on Arabic. The duelling etymological theories and the story I’ve learned about Peter Forsskål and his doomed expedition to Arabia Felix add wonderful layers of history and personality to Abudefduf, firmly cementing its place on my list of favourite names.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) Feb 2 2015


Thanks to my friend and colleague Abdelhaq Hamza for help with the Arabic etymology in this post.

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