Magnolia, Magnol, and cascades of naming

Image: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via

Warning: trivial and nerdy.

Just now I’ve learned that there used to be a football team – part of the Women’s Football Association, in the USA – called the Birmingham Steel Magnolias.  This delights me for nerdy reasons (as you’d probably expect): in particular, because it extends by one step a cascade of naming that I’d meant to write about.  So here goes.

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ll know that I’m oddly fascinated by the etymologies of Latin (or scientific) names.  Fascinated enough, in fact, that I’m currently writing a book about a subset of such etymologies: eponymous Latin names (those coined to honour a person).  In eponymous naming, of course, thing B is named for person A – such as the slime mould beetle Agathidium bushi for George W. Bush, to pick one arguably peculiar example.  That’s a simple one-step naming.  And that led me to wonder: do namings cascade?  Does it ever happen that thing C is named for thing B, which is named for thing (or person) A?  And can thing D be named for thing C which is named for thing B which is named for thing A?  And (to cut this short), how long can such a cascade be?

Two-step cascades are common – they occur when a place is named for a person, and then a species is named for the place.  As an example: the scorpionfish Sebastapistes strongia takes its name from Strong’s Island. Strong’s Island (otherwise known as Oualan) lies in the South Pacific Caroline Islands. It was named, in its turn but somewhat inexplicably, by the American Cpt. Crozer for one Caleb Strong, who was Governor of Massachusetts at the time.  Two steps: strongia for Strong’s Island, and Strong’s Island for Caleb Strong.

But we can do a lot better, which brings me back to the Birmingham Steel Magnolias.  As a football team, it was short-lived: the league in which it played lasted only the single season of 2002-2003.  As a name, it has considerably more temporal reach.  Here’s how this plays out.

The Birmingham Steel Magnolias were named after the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, a drama/comedy focusing on the strength (hence “Steel”) of a group of six women in the American South.  The film is in turn based on the 1987 play Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling.  The play’s name, of course, derives from the woman’s name Magnolia (in 2018, apparently the 314th-most popular name for baby girls in the USA; but much more common in the early 1900s).  Magnolia as a woman’s name comes, in turn, from the flowering tree Magnolia; and finally, the genus Magnolia was named in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol, who lived from 1638 to 1715.  (Magnol organized plant species into groups based on ecology and anatomy, doing so 50 years before Linnaeus.)  I wonder if, when the Steel Magnolias were playing football, there was ever a fan in the stands who knew about Pierre Magnol?

So, the Birmingham Steel Magnolias named for Steel Magnolias (the film), named for Steel Magnolias (the play)*, named for Magnolia as a women’s name, named for the tree Magnolia, named for Pierre Magnol.  That’s a 5-step naming cascade (6 names, 5 naming steps), from football through film and drama back to Pierre Magnol.  Who has a longer example to beat it?

© Stephen Heard March 27, 2018

Thanks to Tony Einfeldt for the extremely nerdy discussion that inspired this post.

*^It’s possible that you won’t give me film-named-for-play as a naming step; maybe that’s carrying over of a name rather than naming one thing “for” another.  If you’re worried about this kind of technicality, I’ve clearly found a kindred nerdy spirit in you.

6 thoughts on “Magnolia, Magnol, and cascades of naming

  1. Michael Kokkinn

    Racking my brains for name-chains, Steve. However, it struck me that I felt a tiny twinge of disappointment when I first read that Magnolia came from a name, Magnol. Not that I entirely dislike eponyms in Science, but because of the sound association. You know, the linguistic idea that the names of things originate from some ancient phoneme. My twinge was because of the link between mag and: magnificent; magnanimous; magus (can’t think of others!) and those beautiful trees with their gloriously- scented blooms.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I had high hopes I could figure out the derivation of Magnol’s name, hoping it derived from a place name or from a saint or – dare I hope – a piece of music like the Magnificat. Sadly, I couldn’t trace the name, which deprived me of the extra link in the chain I wanted!


  2. John

    Something that might be along these lines is related to Virginia and Carolina. Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I, as the Virgin Queen, and the Carolinas were named for various kings of the name of Charles (both English and French, through some interesting history). There are approximately a gazillion species that have epithets of “virginiana” and “caroliniana” (or comparable, depending on gender agreement). I don’t know that it is quite the naming cascade that you mention above, but indirectly, those royals have a ton of species named after them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lifeonlystill

    Dear Stephen,
    Thank you for the interesting article. I also love etymologies of Latin scientific names and the stories behind them.
    Your exploration of chains of naming is an interesting take on the whole thing!



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