I’ve mentioned this before: I’m terrible at titles. That’s why there’s been a long series of title changes for my forthcoming book. (Look for it in March 2020, from Yale University Press. You can actually pre-order it now, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you as the publication date approaches.) The book tells some of the fascinating stories behind eponymous scientific names (that is, species and genera that are named after people). If that piques your interest, you can read a bit more about the book here.
I took at least four stabs at a title before settling on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.
- I briefly considered Naming Nature, before realizing that the reason it sounded like such a good book was that it was a good book – but Carol Yoon’s, not mine.
- Stories Frozen in Names was reaching for something, but definitely not attaining it. It lasted just long enough to be written down.
- Naming the Menagerie was next, and hung in there for quite a long time as the manuscript developed – in fact, that’s still the name of the folder on my computer containing all the manuscript files. I’m still rather fond of Naming the Menagerie; it just didn’t end up fitting the book once I’d written it.
- The Strangest Tribute: How the Scientific Names of Organisms Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels was up next. That’s the title on the book proposal I submitted, and it stayed with the manuscript through review, acceptance, and even copyedits. The subtitle was pretty good – just a little longer than it needed to be. But the main title? Even I knew that “The Strangest Tribute” was a little, well, strange. I was trying to get at the oddness, to the general public, of honouring someone by naming a louse after them (Chapter 4, Gary Larson’s Louse). But it came out awkward. My editor didn’t like it; readers didn’t like it; and I didn’t like it. But I’m terrible at titles, and for a long time couldn’t think of anything better.
- Finally, I settled on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels. There’s nothing like a deadline to concentrate the mind. With the book’s text finished and copyedited, the next step was cover design – and you can’t design a cover without finalizing a title. So I dredged up a bunch of possibilities – some awful and some pretty good – among which was Charles Darwin’s Barnacle. The subtitle contracted a little while the main title grew, and I thought it represented a big improvement. So did the Press, which designed the cover around it (using some of Emily Damstra’s superb illustrations, many more of which appear inside the book). It’s a pretty exciting moment when you first see your new book, with its title and its cover, appear on Amazon (and in a Press catalogue)!
By the way, if you’re like me, you might wonder how often the names Charles Darwin and David Bowie get mentioned in the same breath.* The answer seems to be “not often”; but my book’s title isn’t quite the first time. I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or tickled by the fact that if you Google “‘Charles Darwin’ and ‘David Bowie’”, my book isn’t the first result (at least, not yet). The first result is this absolutely wonderful video, from the BBC sketch comedy series Horrible Histories, of Charles Darwin singing “Natural Selection” – a parody of David Bowie’s song “Changes”. It’s awesome.
There’s more to the book than Darwin and Bowie, of course. There’s Frank Zappa too. And moving a bit further afield: there’s the dozen or so species named for the astonishing 17th-century entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian; there are the species named for Harry Potter, Lucius Malfoy, and Godric Gryffindor; there’s the use of Latin names to sling insults; and if that last one depresses you, there’s the use of Latin names to mark one human’s love for another. And much, much more, of course. I can’t wait for the book to be in the hands of its readers – including your hands, I hope.
© Stephen Heard September 9, 2019
*^You might, by the way, notice that Charles Darwin and David Bowie have something in common besides their joint appearance in my title: like the majority of people honoured in eponymous species or genus names, they’re white men from the developed Western world. That’s a shortcoming in our practice of eponymous naming, and it’s something I discuss at length in the book – because it shouldn’t be that way, and it can change. Curious about that argument? Interested in exploring some counterexamples? Order the book (or ask your library to order it)!