John Wright’s The Naming of the Shrew (Bloomsbury, 2014) is subtitled A Curious History of Latin Names. As you may know, I’ve been curious about Latin (or “scientific” names myself. Stumbling across The Naming of the Shrew, therefore, had me pretty excited*. It turned out to be not quite what I thought, but none the less enjoyable for that.
Wright is a British natural historian with a particular interest in mushrooms (which he doesn’t hesitate to let show). His Curious History is a curious little book. I’m dead envious of the main title, although the subtitle isn’t quite accurate. This isn’t actually a history of Latin names so much as a history of Latin naming (which is not the same thing) and of taxonomy. Actually, it’s more than that: before getting to the history, Wright describes and illustrates typical sources for Latin names (people, places, traits, etc.), and the rules for constructing Latin names and bestowing them on their unsuspecting bearers. That’s the first half of the book. The history (the second half) begins with plant names on clay tablets preserved in the ruins of Nineveh (an Assyrian city destroyed by Babylonian invaders in 612 BC). It winds through Aristotle and his ancient cohorts, medieval herbals and bestiaries, and early modern naturalists like Ray, Tournefort, and Rivenus before arriving (of course) at the story of Linnaeus. Linnaeus more than anyone gave us today’s system of naming, but part of what makes the history interesting is that Linnaeus neither started nor finished the job. Wright’s history continues with the pre-Darwninians and Darwin himself, before ending in the 20th century with the pheneticist-cladist wars (which receive mercifully brief treatment) and the beginnings of molecular systematics. One major theme in this history is the search by many namers for (and rejection by others of) a “natural order” in which to arrange taxonomy – from the ancient scala naturae to Darwin’s common descent.
All this could be quite dry, in the wrong hands. For the most part, though, Wright keeps things engaging, partly by dipping frequently into the peculiar. There’s a lengthy section on “rude” names (Geastrum fornicatum and the like) and one on “wrong” names (such as Hydrangea serratifolia, which actually has leaves perfectly entire but was named “serrate-leaved” by Hooker from an insect-ravaged specimen of Darwin’s). Wright is appropriately and amusingly disrespectful of our profusion of species concepts (“You will be delighted to hear that I will not be describing the remaining twenty-five concepts”) and even more appropriately disrespectful of the Phylocode. The book’s conversational tone complements these peculiarities in keeping things enjoyable – and if the text occasionally bogs down a bit in historical detail, one can blame it on Wright’s pardonable enthusiasm. In light of that last petty complaint, it’s ironic that I found myself missing an omission or two – notably, the French botanist Pierre de Magnol, who took steps towards a systematic arrangement of plant species decades before Linnaeus (and who is commemorated in Magnolia, a lovely one of which is flowering in my neighbour’s yard as I write this). Oh well.
The Naming of the Shrew is best dipped into, rather than read cover-to-cover. But it’s a quick read and full of amusing tidbits. As Wright explains:
People find Latin names unpronounceable, unmemorable, and unhelpful, closing their ears and eyes to them. I think this is a great pity, because they are, in truth, beautiful**, fascinating, often amusing and always useful. (p. xi)
I agree. There’s a rich backstory to Latin names, naming, and the history of taxonomy. The Naming of the Shrew has some fun with it.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 30, 2016
*^Also quite a bit worried. That’s because I’ve been tentatively planning to write (another) book – this one, with the working title Naming Nature, to tell some of the fascinating stories that lie behind Latin names. It would take off from my series of posts on Wonderful Scientific Names, and celebrate some of the naturalists, places, and organismal wonders that are recognized when we name the species around us. I was worried that in The Naming of the Shrew, Wright might have written the book I meant to write. He didn’t; so perhaps I still will.
**^Not all of them, to be sure. I work on Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis – a little brown moth whose name is no more beautiful than it is.