What do you think about “celebrity” Latin names?

Photo: Heteropoda davidbowie, by K.S. Seshadri via wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0

The passing of David Bowie last week brought new attention to his life and his long career in the arts. Over at the Biodiversity Blog, Jeff Ollerton reminded us that one of the many ways Bowie is immortalized is in the naming of the huntsman spider Heteropoda davidbowie (by Peter Jäger).

A lot of species are cruising around unaware that they bear scientific, or “Latin”, names commemorating celebrities. Even in the spider genus Heteropoda, H. davidbowie is accompanied by H. ninahagen and H. udolindberg*. Wikipedia has a long list of others, and they range from the contemporary (the horsefly Scaptia beyonceae) to the ancient (the skipper Potanthus confucius) and from the etymologically appropriate (the turtle Psephophorus terrypratchetti) to the arbitrary (the trilobite Avalanchurus garfunkeli).

Is this a good idea? I’ve heard celebrity naming criticized on several grounds. Some think it trivializes naming, making the science of species discovery and biosystematics seem like unimportant play in the eyes of the public. Others have sniped that it’s only a cheap ploy for a little media attention, or just an attempt to meet the eponymous celebrity. Still others argue that most such names are doomed to obscurity and etymological unhelpfulness, because in a few years we’ll all have forgotten who the Kardashians were**. And when we don’t forget, there’s always the risk that it’s because we named a species for someone who turned out to be distinctly unpleasant.

I can see the point of these criticisms, but I can offer two counterarguments. First, we have millions of species to name. Some etymological creativity will be necessary unless we want the confusing situation of a “canadensis” and a “rubra” in every single genus. (Maybe you’re OK with that, but you won’t be OK with the chaos that ensues when species are transferred among genera and duplication requires new names.) Second, the argument about the ephemeral nature of celebrity surely applies just as much to names in honour of anybody else. We already have thousands of species named for people who’ve been forgotten. At worst, these become arbitrary (I bet not one entomologist in a thousand knows which Smith the mosquito Wyeomyia smithii celebrates). At best, though, they become treasures for the finding – rewarding those who go looking with stories of fascinating people and history, or of astonishing contributions to science made by professional scientists and amateurs alike. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ve seen hints of this – like here, with the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, preserved in butterflies named in her honour. Perhaps in 100 years the louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni will lead someone to rediscover The Far Side, or Heteropoda davidbowie will spark new interest in David Bowie’s music.

So, I lean to approving of celebrity naming – although I like it best when there’s a real connection between the species named and celebrity it’s named for***. But it’s certainly open to debate, and the real reason I wrote this post is to find out what you think. Please tell us in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) January 21, 2016

Related post: Wonderful Latin Names, Part 3: Two creatures named ‘merianae


*Yeah, I hadn’t heard of Udo Lindberg either. Nina Hagen I knew about, although I’ll stick with David Bowie, thanks.

**At least, I sure hope so.

***Heteropoda davidbowie meets this criterion for me. I mean, come on; it’s a spider with orange hair named for a singer whose orange-haired alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, was backed up by The Spiders From Mars.

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13 thoughts on “What do you think about “celebrity” Latin names?

  1. Chris Buddle

    I have no objections with celebrity scientific names. The more press for taxonomy, the better. Plus they are fun and easy to remember. They also are a indication of the times we live in, and will have a historical (pop culture) context when they are viewed in another 50 or 100 years.

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  2. David Mellor (@EvoMellor)

    I’m an optimist by nature, so I like to think some of these names will survive for millennia. I like the thought of some person in the distant future coming across Scaptia beyonceae and pondering about the name and the culture that produced it. Perhaps the best reason not to use celebrity naming is the possibility of sending some future scholar down a rabbit hole trying to figure out the meaning of such names, and having lost our cultural context, will have no real means of figuring out what we were doing. That being said, is mixing future taxonomic research with historical research a bad outcome? I don’t know, hopefully not, because I think these names will continue to come up as long as humans have a sense of humor.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. John

    [I tried to post this earlier today, but my internet died, and I don’t think it went through, so I am trying again.]

    Unlike kjmacleod, I definitely prefer nice descriptive names to anything else (perhaps because I know enough Latin and Greek roots that they are interpretable to me?). For instance, when I am looking at Chrysopsis gossypina in the field, the name makes sense to me (rough etymology: gold-appearing cottony plant; it has yellow flowers and leaves that look like they have cotton on them). This clear connection between the name and the species appearance is always a nice trait in a name from my perspective. I generally don’t think naming based on a region (like the ever popular canadensis) is that helpful, unless perhaps it is a small locality for a very narrow range endemic (e.g. Physa zionis, the Zion Snail, which is found only in Zion Canyon, Utah).

    That being said, overall I think celebrity names are fine, and add some modernity and fun to a profession that might generally be seen as stuffy and old. While the publicity may be short-lived, I agree with Chris Buddle that the more press the better. I also appreciate the wide variety of names that are possible with the inclusion of human names into scientific names. I don’t really see naming a new species after an ephemeral celebrity as different from naming one for a well known or distinguished scientist. Both are not easy to connect with even 50 years after publication. Also, as pointed out above, this allows us to rediscover these people many years from now and enjoy snippets of history. Over on BirdForum, there is even a whole subforum exploring etymology of bird names, so there are certainly people interested in digging into the history of names. While there is certainly a rabbit hole/treasure hunt aspect to this, it can be fun in its own way, and often uncovers interesting information.

    BirdForum Etymology link: http://www.birdforum.net/forumdisplay.php?f=714

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  4. jeffollerton

    Hi Steve – thanks for tweeting my post with the comment about how the Led Zeppelin fanzine helps me conceptualize “biodiversity”. I then had a look at how many followers you have and it’s 1,666 – I’m imagining a Jimmy Page/Aleister Crowley black magic thing going on here…… 🙂

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Boy, nobody else better follow me 🙂 I have to admit I really enjoyed it when my Twitter follower count briefly hit 666. But I was too busy catching a screenshot to do anything evil.

      By the way, as you probably realize, I really like burying a few musical references too. Nice work with Tight but Loose (both post and reference)!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  5. frogflydandelion

    If it’s done in a clever and relevant way, I am fine with it. But sometimes it’s a crude, unimaginative and patent grab at media attention, like when the authors decide that the celebrity was on the radio while they were in the office, working on the specimen.

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  6. Morgan Jackson

    I’m a fan of celebrity patronyms (I actually coined the term “celebronym” to refer to them on my blog). I think scientists and taxonomists can get so wrapped up in our work that we tend to take our jobs and ourselves too seriously, in turn leading us to believe that anything that doesn’t conform to our inherited or preconceived notions of acceptable behaviour must then be non-scientific. In an age where taxonomists often complain how underappreciated and underfunded they are (perhaps rightly so), I can’t understand criticizing a colleague for trying to break out of stereotypes and bringing some attention to the species that they’re passionate about, and which they have dedicated their life to bringing out of obscurity.

    Long live the celebronym, and the 15 minutes of fame that may come with it!

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. jeffollerton

      “I think scientists and taxonomists can get so wrapped up in our work that we tend to take our jobs and ourselves too seriously”

      Amen to that! My (non-academic) wife Karin often comments that academics (not just scientists) are often too precious about their work and their role in society and, painful as it sometimes is to acknowledge, I think she’s correct. Blogging by academics can be a great leveller in that regard.

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  7. urbansimulator

    There are discussions here in my hometown Berlin to give a street the name of David Bowie while I he lived here quite some time which was also a turning point in his life. Such namings are appropriate from my point of view in order to honour outstanding persons.

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