Less than a tribute: when Latin names are insults

This is an excerpt from a longer essay exploring the darker side of eponymous Latin naming, which will appear as a chapter in a book I’m currently writing. Stay tuned for more about that project, which should any day now be formally under contract.

 When Carl Linnaeus invented modern “binomial” Latin names, he freed scientific naming from the necessity of carrying a full description of every named species.  This made it possible, for the first time, for a scientist naming a new species to honour someone admirable or notable.  We can all point to species named that way: Berberis darwini, for example, or Spurlingia, or any of several species named for Maria Sibylla Merian.  But any tool that can build can also tear down; and just as Latin names can honour, they can dishonour.  Linnaeus was the first to use naming to celebrate scientists who had gone before him – but as it turns out, he was also the first to succumb to temptation, and use Latin naming to insult someone with whom he had quarreled.  He wouldn’t, as we’ll see, be the last.

Linnaeus’s most famous work, the Systema Naturae, used a new system for classifying plants: his “sexual system”, in which plants were assigned to classes and orders based entirely on the number and arrangement of stamens and pistils in their flowers.  In places, Linnaeus used somewhat bold language about this: for example, he waxed eloquently (and erotically, for the time) about how

petals do service as bridal beds…adorned with such noble bed curtains and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials…[and] the bridegroom [might] embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts. (Linnaeus, Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum, 1729; translation from Larson 1967)*

This sexual frankness didn’t sit well with some of his contemporaries.  The Prussian botanist Johann Siegesbeck condemned Linnaeus’s system as “lewd”, and objected to the notion that flowers could commit such “loathsome harlotry”.  Linnaeus didn’t take criticism well, and retaliated by naming a new species, Siegesbeckia orientalis, after Siegesbeck.  How was this “retaliation”?  Siegesbeckia is a small, unpleasantly sticky and rather unattractive weed, and one with tiny flowers to boot.  Given Linnaeus’s explicit association between plant and human sexual organs (and his insistence, in his Critica Botanica, that eponymously named plants should resemble their eponyms), his choice of a tiny-flowered species was surely no accident. Siegesbeck and Linnaeus would be enemies for the rest of their lives.

Linnaeus didn’t actually come right out and say that he meant Siegesbeckia as an insult; and to this day, few if any taxonomists will explicitly record their intent to insult.  Instead, understanding a namer’s intent often involves some careful reading between the lines and the integration of multiple clues.  For example, two centuries after Linnaeus named Siegesbeckia, two paleontologists (Swedish again, although surely that’s a coincidence) used their fossils to exchange particularly vicious naming insults.  Understanding those insults involves some detective work.

Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg were invertebrate paleontologists working between the two World Wars.  Warburg was Jewish, and Isberg had far-right sympathies (during the Second World War he would join the pro-Nazi political party Svensk Opposition).  Although little written record survives, it’s clear that there was absolutely no love lost between them. Warburg fired the first taxonomic shots.  In 1925, she named a genus of trilobites for Isberg.  The new genus Isbergia contained two species: Isbergia parvula and Isbergia planifrons.  Neither species name, in and of itself, is unusual; other trilobites bear similar names.  However, in context, the meaning is only thinly veiled.  The Latin parvula means slight, unimportant, or deficient in understanding, while planifrons means flat-headed.  In light of Isberg’s political beliefs, the latter name was particularly cutting (and Warburg made I. planifrons the type species for the genus).  The far right believed that broad, flat head shapes were a sign of mental inferiority and associated them with what they called “mediocre, inert” races.  By associating Isberg with planifrons, Warburg was turning his own odious doctrine against him.  The message couldn’t be missed (and it’s a rather easy one to sympathize with).

Nine years later, Isberg would hit back, naming a genus of extinct mussels Warburgia.  Again, some reading between the lines reveals the intent to insult.  For one thing, Warburg was a woman of considerable size, and Isberg’s genus Warburgia had four species – three of which were Warburgia crassa (= fat), Warburgia lata (= wide), and Warburgia oviformis (= egg-shaped).  (The fourth was Warburgia iniqua (= evil or unjust), which departs from the theme but isn’t any nicer).  To top this off, he points out that the genus is best distinguished from its close relatives by the obvious mark left by the anterior adductor muscle.  What might that have to do with anything?  Well, Isberg, writing in German, used the term Schliessmuskel for this muscle – a term that, in reference to humans, also means sphincter or anus.  By itself, each piece of the Warburgia description and naming is unremarkable: some mussels are indeed fatter than others, many species bear names like crassa and oviformis, and there’s no reason the Schliessmuskel can’t be used to distinguish genera.  Taking everything together, it’s impossible to miss Isberg’s intent.

But not every name that suggests an insult actually is one.  Take, for example, the beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi, and Agathidium rumsfeldi.  They were named in 2005 by Kelly Miller and Quentin Wheeler, in a major revision that described 58 new species of this previously understudied genus.  The names bushi, cheneyi, and rumsfeldi refer, of course, to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld – respectively President, Vice-President, and Secretary of Defence in the U.S. administration of the day.  It was easy enough to think that these namings were meant as insults.  After all, all three eponyms were (and remain) reviled by many; the beetles feed on decaying fungi and the group is known as the “slime-mould beetles”; and another new naming, Agathidium vaderi (for the evil, although fictional, Sith Lord Darth Vader) was prominently illustrated as the monograph’s frontispiece.  But those seeing insults had jumped to a conclusion. The lead author, Kelly Miller, explains it this way**:

We intended the names to be honorific…We were two conservatives in academia working together (which is not common).  It was early in the Iraq war period, and we were both in favor of intervention there…And finally, we love our beetles!  We wouldn’t name a new species after someone we didn’t like. [In interviews,] we compared it to the Lewis and Clark expedition naming the three forks of the Missouri after Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin (President, Vice President, and Secretary of the Treasury [at the time]).

Perhaps inevitably, there are those who believe nonetheless that Agathidium bushi, cheneyi, and rumsfeldi are cleverly disguised insults after all.  But in the same monograph, Miller and Wheeler named new species for their significant others past and present, for entomologists and collectors who had contributed to the study of Agathidium, and for their longtime scientific illustrator.  It just doesn’t make sense to believe that Agathidium fawcetti (for the illustrator) is an honour, but Agathidium bushi is an insult.

Over the years since Linnaeus, there have been a few more clear cases of insult naming (and a few that are open to debate).  But overall, the practice is uncommon.  There are probably several reasons for this.  First, the Zoological Code (although not the Botanical Code) recommends that names “as far as possible…not cause offence”.  Second, whether or not insult naming is actually discouraged, most taxonomists seem to agree that it’s in poor taste.  Finally, unless it’s extremely pointed, it just doesn’t seem likely to be that effective.  If one’s target is a scientist, they’re more likely to be pleased than insulted.  And if they aren’t, then scientific naming may just be too obscure for them to notice, or for the “insult” to be felt if they do.

Except, perhaps, for Isbergia planifrons, and for Siegesbeckia.  Those must have stung.

© Stephen Heard  February 26, 2018

Keep an eye on Scientist Sees Squirrel to learn more about my book project – and watch for the book’s appearance to learn more about insult naming. Was “Holland’s terrible hog” an insult?  What about Donald Trump’s comb-over moth? 

 And, of course, what about all those names that really are tributes?  Many Latin names celebrate astonishing stories of their eponyms’ adventures, brilliance, and bravery.  Those names are fun too.

*^Larson, J.L. 1967. Linnaeus and the natural method. Isis 58:304-320.

**^Email from K. Miller to S. Heard, July 7, 2017.  I’m grateful to Kelly for explaining his thinking to me, and also to Rainer Meltzer and Niklas Janz for help with research and translation.


6 thoughts on “Less than a tribute: when Latin names are insults

  1. Macrobe

    Thanks for posting this rare insight on ‘naming names’ and those that chose them! Although I share your interest in eponymous Latin names of living organisms, I admit they are less entertaining than names given to genes. Unrestricted by Latin convention geneticists often reveal their humorous side by borrowing from pop culture, childhood books, and Marvel heroes. (Two favorites are INDY -I’m Not Dead Yet- and Superman.) On the other hand, entomologist Neal Evenhuis inserts his comedic nature in naming several species in the Pieza genus. There may be more examples.

    The founding members of the ICZN may not have approved of the humor in such names, but I suspect Linnaeus would have a few laughs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ian Medeiros

    Not exactly the same thing, but there was a mention of another sort of vindictive eponymy in a recent Madroño article (Keeley et el. 2017, Madroño 64: 138–153):
    “[Phillip V. Wells] often spoke of the sharp and sometimes bitter rivalry between Willis Linn Jepson and Alice Eastwood, both of whom in the first half of the 20th century seemed locked in a competition to name new Arctostaphylos taxa and provide an appropriate treatment. In the context of this background, it was noted from A California Flora (Munz and Keck 1959) that a synonym for A. viscida Parry was A. jepsonii Eastwood. When one of us queried Wells about this incongruity, he explained (to paraphrase) that A. jepsonii is a synonym because it was considered a hybrid and Eastwood realized this and published the name with the recognition that it would never be an acceptable name and, based on rules of botanical nomenclature would bury forever the name of Jepson as a legitimate species of Arctostaphylos” (138).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Guillaume Cabanac (@gcabanac)

    Nice post! This reminded me about this case:

    “In 2017 a species of parasitoid wasps discovered by Russian and Mexican entomologists was named after Elbakyan (Idiogramma elbakyanae).[23] Elbaykan was offended by this, writing “If you analyse the situation with scientific publications, the real parasites are scientific publishers, and Sci-Hub, on the contrary, fights for equal access to scientific information”.[24] Following this event, and in the context of her long-running tense relations with the liberal, pro-Western wing of the Russian scientific community, she blocked access to Sci-Hub for users from the Russian Federation.[25] Sci-Hub access was later restored to Russia and Elbakyan said in an interview that many fans contacted her and convinced her “that the opinion of the so-called ‘science popularizers’ who attacked me on the Internet cannot be considered the opinion of the scientific community.”[26] The Russian entomologist responsible for naming the wasp stated that he supports Sci-Hub, and that in any event, the naming was not an insult, in particular because parasitoids are closer to predators than to parasites.[27]”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: I’m writing another book! | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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