It’s an opinion I hear fairly often: those who give Latin (scientific) names to species should always make those names descriptive (this is often phrased as “so they tell you something about the organism”). It’s an opinion I often hear put rather forcefully, as if a well-educated biologist couldn’t possibly think anything else. Perhaps I’m just not well-educated enough, but it’s an opinion I don’t share. But there are interesting reasons why I don’t share it, why some folks do, and why there’s no simple answer to the question.
Many Latin names are descriptive, of course, referring to an organism’s appearance (the Cerulean warbler Setophaga cerulea, which is indeed deep cerulean blue), or to its habitat (the sergeant-major fish Abudefduf saxatilis, whose species epithet means ‘lives among rocks’), or to its geographic distribution (Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, whose range includes much of southeastern Canada). But plenty of others aren’t. Some Latin names are eponymous (David Bowie’s spider, Heteropoda davidbowie*), some are jokes (the snail Ba humbugi, although the ‘Ba’ actually refers to geography), and some are simply arbitrary combinations of letters (the sawfly Phrontosoma usta, where ‘usta’ doesn’t mean anything at all).
This diversity in etymological practice means that naming species is one of the most purely creative acts in science. When you’re choosing a name for the species you’re describing, you can be descriptive; but according to the rules of naming, you don’t need to be. You can do almost anything you’d like: both zoological and botanical Codes specifically allow names that are arbitrary combinations of letters, so long as they’re reasonably pronounceable, and that means that almost anything goes. So if my question had been “must species names always be descriptive”, the answer would have been easy: no, of course not. But my question was actually “should species names always be descriptive”, and that’s harder.
You can see creativity in naming as an endless source of delight (as I do); or you can see it as a problem. Some people are opposed to eponymous names in particular, but many simply seem to believe that descriptive names are better because they encode information about the biology of the species. This eases the job of species recognition and name recall in the field, I’m often told, and anyway it’s somehow more respectful to the species. These are not unreasonable positions to take, but they aren’t obviously and inarguably true either.**
Perhaps my belief that names needn’t be descriptive is coloured by my experience as an entomologist. If you’re working with a group of limited biodiversity (like birds, with a measly 10,000 or so species globally), maybe it’s possible to coin helpfully descriptive names for all of them. But there are somewhere between 3 and 30 million insects species in the world, all needing names; and if they’ll all descriptive, we’ll have a thousand different species all named rubra. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider Phylloxera quercus, Phylloxera querceti, and Phylloxera quercina (all aphid-like herbivores of oaks); or Rhagoletis berberis and Rhagoletis berberidis (two fruit flies infesting barberry fruits that were named, bizarrely, by the same person in the same paper); or Tetranychus tumidus, Tetranychus tumidellus, and Tetranychus tumidosus (three spider mites with swollen (‘tumid’) bodies.) I could go on, but I’m sure you’d prefer that I didn’t.
You know, of course, the saying about history, and being doomed to repeat it. We’ve been here before. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Latin names had to be descriptive. Names were phrases – sometimes quite long ones – that were expected to not only describe a species, but differentiate it from other similar ones. That expectation gave us names like Gadus, dorso tripterygio, ore cirrato, longitudine ad latitudinem tripla, pinna ani prima officulorum trigiata (the English whiting, a fish; now mercifully Merlangius merlangus). Worse: when new species were added to our knowledge, old names had to be revised to preserve their ability to differentiate. This system was already groaning then (when expectations were that the Earth might be home to 10,000 or so species). It would be utterly hopeless now.
The problem of descriptive names was solved by Carl Linnaeus. His “binomial” system of genus and species names is taught to every university student, but we rarely point out its key, brilliant, feature. That key feature isn’t the genus-and-species system (although that was important). It’s not the use of Latin (that wasn’t new). It’s the fact that Linnaeus realized that names were doing two different things (indexing and describing), and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect them to do both. So the binomial system separated the two functions: the species name retained the indexing function, but now pointed to a separate passage of text that described the species. A Linnaean genus or species name could still be descriptive, but it didn’t have to be. (A one consequence of this, Linnaeus invented the possibility of eponymous naming; he was also the first to do it.) If you don’t see why that’s an absolutely brilliant innovation, imagine yourself telling your friends which fish you caught on your last sampling trip, using the pre-Linnaean names for whiting and other species!
Actually, there’s nothing special about the separation of indexing and descriptive functions in naming things. We do it routinely, and think nothing of it, in common English nouns. Among fruits, for example, blueberry is descriptive, but raspberry, apple, pear, lychee, and banana are not.*** This doesn’t seem to cause intolerable confusion in the produce aisle.
So should all Latin names be descriptive? Well, if you think they should, then you’re reverting nomenclatural practice about 300 years, gifting us a whole lot of names that are either nearly indistinguishable or very, very long, and removing the opportunity for a lot of fun and fascinating wordplay. But, snippy as I sound in disagreeing, you wouldn’t be wrong. That’s the thing: because naming is entirely creative, if you name a species, you can do you.
© Stephen Heard May 31, 2022
Image: Rose pogonia and fringed polygala, unhelpfully descriptive in both English and Latin. Rose pogonia (above post) © Distant Hill Garden and Nature Trail via Flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; fringed polygala (below) © Stephen Heard CC BY 4.0.
*^Actually, like Scaptia beyonce and Agra schwarzeneggeri, Heteropoda davidbowie is both eponymous and descriptive. And if you’re interested enough in naming practices to have made it to this footnote, you should definitely read my book..
**^The claim that descriptive names make recognition and name recall easier is belied by my experience with two lovely boreal flowers: rose pogonia and fringed polygala. Both are rose-coloured, both have fringed petals, and I can absolutely never remember which name applies to which when I see one of them in the field. Their Latin names are also unhelpfully descriptive: Polygala paucifolia has plenty of leaves, more than many plants; and Pogonia ophioglossoides has a snake-like tongue mostly if you’ve never seen a snake’s tongue.
***^I encourage you to go down the rabbithole of proving me wrong here. Some of those “non-descriptive” names may in fact have begun as descriptive, far enough back in their linguistic heritage. They aren’t now, in any real sense, to modern English speakers. Going back to the rose pogonia: even among biologists, those who realize that ophioglossoides means “resembling a snake’s tongue” are probably in a small minority