Everyone likes a world record, right? Meet the newly described myxobacterium Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis. That’s right: 73 letters (68 if you count by Welsh orthography, treating ‘ch’ and ‘ll’ as digraphs). The previous (probable*) record holder, the soldier fly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, is only 42 letters, so I think we have a winner by somewhat more than a nose. (The record for shortest name, by the way, is held by Yi qi among others. Because genus and species names must have at least 2 letters each, this record can never be broken.)
So, authorship team**, achievement unlocked.
Is this a good Latin name or a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good Latin name? Well, yes to both, I guess. On the plus side: it’s interesting; it recognizes a language (Welsh) that’s been historically suppressed; and it’s likely to garner some public attention for species discovery (an extremely important part of science that’s under-resourced and under-recognized) and for the myxobacteria (which are really cool: predatory bacteria that hunt in packs and agglomerate into fruiting bodies!).
On the minus side: llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis – really?
The etymology is, to be fair, nothing unusual in the construction of Latin names: it’s a place name, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Latinized with “-ensis”, to indicate “coming from”. And sure enough, the species was isolated from soil collected in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the Welsh town famous for its name. In fact (it would seem), deliberately famous for its name: it was originally Llanfair y Pwllgwyngyll until some terribly clever 19th-century folks decided that a longer name would attract tourists. (They were right.) The full name isn’t (unsurprisingly) in routine use: the town appears on maps as Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, and either of two shorter forms appears locally***: Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG. All of which means that llanfairensis or llanfairpwyllensis would have been perfectly suitable names for the new Myxococcus (and they would have retained the commendable feature of recognizing the local language). It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the authors chose Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis mostly because they could, and because it was fun.
Could they really? It seems so. The International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria doesn’t prohibit such long names, although it recommends against them (the Code has Rules, which are binding, and Recommendations, which are not, and here we go: “Recommendation 6.1… Avoid names or epithets that are very long or difficult to pronounce” ).**** It’s perhaps worth mentioning that in 1929, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature suppressed a batch of amphipod names, including the jawbreaker Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis, on the grounds that “the application of the Rules in accepting them will clearly result in more confusion than uniformity”. That is, the long and complicated amphipod names weren’t actually disallowed by the naming Code (in this case, the zoological one); but the commissioners agreed that they were a bad enough idea to be gotten rid of anyway.
This may all seem trivial (whichever way you sit with respect to Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis), but it isn’t quite. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that Latin naming is regrettably short on human diversity. There, my concern was with eponymous names (species names based on names of people). But there’s another way we might think about diversity in naming: etymologies and source languages. “Latin” names needn’t actually be Latin – they can derive from any language (even Klingon, although sadly, nobody to my knowledge has taken that opportunity). That’s a great thing, I think, and you can check out this post for a sampling of names from languages across the diversity of human cultures. But the rules of naming do make it difficult to fully represent some languages – only the Latin alphabet is allowed, for example, and concerns about pronounceability suggest that one might reasonably ask, pronounceability by speakers of what language? The ‘ll’ in Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis is pronounced in Welsh as a sound that doesn’t occur in English (or many other languages), and the click consonants of Khoisan languages are difficult to represent in the Latin alphabet. Should we adjust our Latin-naming system to make it more inclusive of linguistic diversity – even if doing so makes it more difficult for global science to use? I don’t pretend to have an answer to that one. I will note that my objection to llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis isn’t its Welshness, but its length. The routine use of shorter town names suggests that many Welsh speakers and even residents of the town itself share this objection. I’d have been quite tickled with Myxococcus llanfairpwyllensis!
What do you think? Is Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis a breath of fresh air, or rather too much of a good thing?
© Stephen Heard October 20, 2020
Did this post make you think maybe Latin names are more interesting than you thought? You might want to check out my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider!
Image: The railway station sign at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Photo G1MFG via Wikimedia.org CC 0.
*^Because there’s no single repository of Latin names for all organisms, it’s very hard to make any definitive statement about things like this. Still, if there were longer valid names out there, you’d think they’d have been noticed.
**^James Chambers, Natalie Sparks, Natashia Sydney, Paul G. Livingstone, Alan R. Cookson and David E. Whitworth – none of whom I know, and none of whom are likely to be particularly happy with me if they read this post. If you’re one of them, and you’re reading: sorry.
***^I’m told. I’ve never been. And I want to go, which means that nefarious 19th century plot is working still.
****^You’ve been wondering, haven’t you? Here’s how you pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.