Let’s all relax about Latin names from pop culture

Image: The sorting-hat spider, Eriovixia gryffindori, from Ahmed et al. 2016 Indian J. Arachnology 5:24-27; photo Sumukha J.N., used by permission.

I’ve nearly finished drafting the manuscript of my new book, which will tell some of the stories behind eponymous Latin names (those based on the names of people, like Berberis darwini for Charles Darwin).  These names tell so many fascinating stories that I’ve been having a whale of a time with the writing.  I hope you’ll soon have nearly as much fun reading it.

The chapter I’m working on at the moment (as I write) is called Harry Potter and the Name of the Species, and it’s about Latin names drawn from fictional characters.  Consider, for instance, some names from The Lord of the Rings: the large-eyed, swamp-dwelling fish Galaxias gollumoides; the wasp genera Balinia, Bofuria, Durinia, Dvalinia, Gimlia, and Oini; or the two weevils Macrostyphlus frodo and M. gandalf*. Or from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the blenny Bidenichthys beeblebroxi and the deepwater, fjord-dwelling fish Fiordichthys slartibartfasti**. Or from Discworld, the parasitoid wasps Aleiodes tmaliaae, A. teatimei, A. selachiii, A. pteppicymoni, A. prillae, A. nivori, A. flannelfooti, A. downeyi, and A. deathi – all named for members of the Assassins’ Guild.  But the chapter takes its title, of course, from the recent spate of namings for Harry Potter characters, including Aname aragog (a spider, of course), Harryplax severus (a crab), and my favourite, the sorting-hat spider Eriovixia gryffindori.

All these names, for me, are good fun.  But not everyone agrees: it’s a common claim that we shouldn’t name species using pop-culture references, because in a decade or two nobody will understand the references any more and the names will lose all meaning.  (This is an even more common objection to names based on celebrities).

What should we make of this objection?  I think the case of Hermione has something to tell us.

While writing my names-from-fiction chapter, I tried to find as many Harry Potter-derived Latin names as I could.  I was hoping to find a species named for Hermione Granger, but there doesn’t seem to be one (yet).  There are plenty of species named “hermione; it’s just that all but one predate the publication of Harry Potter (and the recent species isn’t Potter-related).  They go back, in fact, as far as Linnaeus (the butterfly Hipparchia hermione, and others). So where do those Hermiones come from?

Well, of course, there were Hermiones in the world long before J.K. Rowling.  I didn’t have much luck tracing etymologies for the hermione species, but most of them are probably named for one of two older Hermiones.  In Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, Hermione is the good Queen of Silicia; and in Greek mythology, Hermione is the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy.  In other words: all those pre-Harry Potter hermiones are pop-culture references too.  They’re just older pop-culture references (Shakespeare was very much a pop-culture playwright in his day, and for centuries afterward; and Greek mythology was arguably revived as pop culture through the 19th and much of the 20th century).  They are, in fact, exactly the kind of pop-culture references we get warned against.  The Winter’s Tale, in particular, is not a particularly commonly read or staged play, and I had never encountered its Hermione; and despite reading some Greek mythology in high school, I had no recollection of its Hermione.  Each of those hermione species, then, had a name lost on me – right?

Wrong.  Unfamiliar names are simply invitations to learn.  In my frustrated quest for species named after Hermione Granger, I learned a little about The Winter’s Tale, and a little about Menelaus, Helen, and their Hermione.  Exactly the same thing happens to me when I run across a non-eponymous Latin name whose etymology isn’t obvious from my limited knowledge of Latin and Greek: I look it up, and I learn.  (Frequently, it turns out that even voluminous knowledge of Latin and Greek wouldn’t have saved me, because the names have other linguistic origins.)   I don’t understand why this is a problem.  Isn’t it a good thing to learn new things, or to rediscover old ones?  If, in 50 years, nobody reads Harry Potter or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or (gasp) Lord of the Rings any more, then species names based on characters from those books may send our grandchildren to the library to rediscover them.  What a wonderful thing that would be!

So: let’s relax about pop-culture references in species names – whether it’s pop culture present, or pop culture past.  After all: we have several million species still needing names, and we’re going to need all the creativity we can muster.

© Stephen Heard  January 10, 2019


*^The two weevils are both from the Colombian Andes. Macrostyphlus frodo has a body length of 2.8 mm, while M. gandalf is just 1.9 mm long (Morrone 1994).  M. gandalf is, therefore, the lesser of two weevils.

**^In case you’ve forgotten, Slartibartfast was the planetary designer who was particular proud of his award-winning work on the Norwegian fjords.

8 thoughts on “Let’s all relax about Latin names from pop culture

  1. Ian Medeiros

    You might be interested in a recent (and ongoing) controversy in plant taxonomy that touches on this subject. A sizable chunk of the new names at the center of the dispute have epithets drawn from Tolkien.
    http://www.plantgateway.com/global-flora-vol-4-glovap-nomenclature-part-1/
    https://aspt.net/news-blog/2018/letter-re-glovap-from-aspt-leadership-to-society#.XEd2xthKgb0
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325624704_PPG_recognises_too_many_fern_genera
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325622989_Are_there_too_many_fern_genera

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  2. Mike Dardeau

    Oddly enough, I’ve used your name as a patronym before although not for you. I named a new species of snapping shrimp (yeah, same genus as Synalpheus pinkfloydi) after my adviser Richard Heard

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  3. Michael Ohl

    Hi Stephen, great news that you are writing a book on scientific names. What a wonderful topic! Have you noticed my book “The Art of Naming”, which came out last year? It’s also on the pleasures of scientific naming, but with only a chapter on patronyms. Anyway, the world of scientific naming is so diverse and rich, there is room for many books. So I am very much looking forward to your book! Best, Michael

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hi Michael – yes, I’ve bought and read your lovely book! (I even mentioned it on a podcast a month or so back – https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/01/10/i-talked-about-latin-names-and-naming-on-the-natural-reality-podcast/) I hope readers of your book will be sparked to read mine, and vice versa. I don’t cover nearly the range you do, but that lets me dig more deeply into eponymous naming – which makes the two books complementary, I think.

      For readers who would like to enjoy MIchael’s book too, here’s a link: https://amzn.to/2T7Turt.

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  4. Pingback: I’ve submitted the manuscript for my new book! | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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