Warning: judgy and subjective.
If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know I have a strange and nerdy fascination with Latin names of plants and animals. People often think (my undergraduates always think) Latin names are long, obscure, boring, and unpronounceable. But they’re wrong. Latin names can be wonderful – and I have a series of posts saying so. They can be delightful to say. They can celebrate scientific heroes or pop-culture ones. They can keep alive the memory of people otherwise forgotten. Sometimes they can do all those things at once. I think of Latin names as loose threads that, when pulled on, often reveal unexpected and fascinating stories.
But as much as it pains me, I have to admit that some Latin names really are long, obscure, boring, and unpronounceable. The moth pictured above is Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis. I’ve been studying this moth for over 20 years (here’s our first paper about it), and I still don’t know how to pronounce its name. The genus name seems to come from a Greek root, gnorimos for well known or familiar, mashed onto a Latin one, schema meaning shape. I don’t know what that tells anyone. And while the species name is descriptive (gallaesolidaginis makes galls on Solidago), it’s more than a little unwieldy.
- Pseudotyrannochthonius octospinosus, a pseudoscorpion
- Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus, a flycatcher
- Weberbauerocereus cephalomacrostibas, a cactus
- Cryptodidymosphaerites princetonensis, a (fossil) fungus
- Prolasioptera aeschynanthusperottetii, a gall midge
- Anaerobiospirillium succiniciproducens, a bacterium
- Notiocryptorrhynchus punctatocarinulatus, a weevil
- Lagenivaginopseudobenedenia, a genus of parasitic worms
- Parapallaseakytodermogammarus abyssalis, Zienkowiczikytodermogammarus zienkowiczi, Toxophthalmoechinogammarus toxophthalmus, Siemienkiewicziechinogammarus siemenkiewitschii, Rhodophthalmokytodermogammarus cinnamomeus, and Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis, amphipods***.
These names mostly have one thing in common: they try to do way, way too much. They try to mention a place, and the name of a related taxon, and a descriptive trait, and another descriptive trait, and then modify that with a “pseudo” or a “para” or a “brachy”. And then they keep on going.
There’s some interesting history attached to this. Scientists have, for thousands of years, been working to systematically list and describe the species with which we share our world. A necessary part of this task to assign names to each species, so that we can have a way to talk about them. In the 1600s and early 1700s, this task was becoming both more urgent and more difficult as European scientists were struggling to classify a flood of specimens coming in from voyages of exploration around the world. And they were doing this with a pre-Linnaean naming system, and that sucked.
The pre-Linnaean convention for names wasn’t the two-word (genus name and species name) system we’re familiar with today. Instead, the species name was descriptive – in the sense that it was supposed to describe the named species in a way that distinguished it from all other related species. That made the name a phrase – sometimes a long phrase, and as more species were named, increasingly a longer and longer phrase. A name might be, for instance (for a species of poisonwood) Amyris foliis pinnatis, foliolis petiolata, which mean “Amyris – the one with pinnately compound leaves, and the leaflets with petioles”. These names were cumbersome, and promised only to get more so.
It was, of course, Carl Linnaeus who freed us from these names, by inventing the binomial system we use today****. In the Linnaean system, the naming and describing functions are separated, with the name serving as an indexing device to access a description in the literature. Our Amyris, for example, can now be just Amyris toxifera, with the naming publication holding the full description. A name can still be descriptive – A. toxifera is indeed poisonous – but it doesn’t have to be. Linnaeus invented the possibility of naming a species based on a location (Viola canadensis), after a person (Heteropoda davidbowie), or with any number of other etymologies. (Arbitrary combinations of letters are even, explicitly, allowed by the naming Codes.)
Like many truly great inventions, Linnaeus’s innovation of name-as-indexer is completely, head-smackingly obvious in hindsight. It made it possible for us to make names memorable but also accessible. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad names I’m picking on here forget about the progress Linnaeus brought us. They try to encode too much description in the names. Some description helps make a name memorable, to be sure (although it’s not the only way to do that). Too much description makes a name clunky; I’d argue most of the names above really are long, obscure, boring, and unpronounceable.
The job of taxonomists is a critical one: we can’t understand or manage our natural world if we don’t know the species, and we can’t know them without describing and naming them. I make this argument often, to students and to public audiences. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Latin names make the argument harder to make. We’re stuck with the ones we have, but it would be great if we didn’t make more.
© Stephen Heard October 24, 2017
But really, most Latin names aren’t like these. Check out some Wonderful Latin Names:
- Upupa epops
- Abudefduf saxatilis
- Two creatures named ‘merianae‘
- Yi qi
- Turdus ignobilis debilis
- “Celebrity” scientific names
- Syzygium aromaticum
- Eriovixia gryffindori
- Salacca zalacca
Image: Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae), © Tom Murray CC BY-ND-NC 1.0
*^In my completely subjective value judgment, of course.
**^I owe this delightfully playful phrase to Judith Viorst’s wonderful children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you don’t know this book, you should. We’ve all had that day.
***^Thankfully, this batch of amphipod names was later invalidated by the IUZN, the body responsible for the rules of naming for animals.
****^This oversimplifies a bit. He wasn’t the first to use binomial names. He was, however, the first to do so exclusively, and he was responsible for making the practice standard.