“A year ago, May 1902, I had a peculiar entomological experience.” That, believe it or not, is the opening sentence of a scientific paper –Annie Trumbull Slosson’s 1903 paper in the Canadian Entomologist, “A Coleopterous Conundrum”. This short paper had some unanticipated consequences. It’s an amusing story, and also a bit of a cautionary tale.
Slosson was writing about a rather strange beetle that she found feeding as a pest in her insect collection. A number of insect species bedevil insect collectors, sneaking in to feed on (and ruin) pinned specimens. But Slosson didn’t recognize this particular beetle, and sent specimens to several experts who didn’t recognize it either. (She had females, it seems – the right hand specimen in the image above. They’re wingless and rather odd. In fact, their common name would become “the odd beetle”. Really.) Her paper tells this story with a notable sense of humour. She recounts her correspondence with experts who were as puzzled as she was, and both she and her correspondents describe her specimens and speculate about the likely taxonomic affinity of her beetle. Was it a peculiar paussid? Was it a deviant dermestid? Was it a less-than-familiar lymyxellid?* But before long she had run out of specimens (and experts to send them to), without figuring out what her bizarre beetle might have been. She concluded her paper with a frustrated flourish, throwing up rhetorical hands and asking “Shall I ever find other specimens of what I have sometimes, in chat over my discovery, styled Ignotus aenigmaticus?”
Ignotus is Latin for “unknown”, aenigma is Latin for “riddle”, and Ignotus aenigmaticus would be a legitimately constructed Latin name for the beetle. Slosson didn’t mean it that way – it was just a joke – but because her paper also included substantial description of the species, it was arguably a valid act of taxonomic naming. And sure enough, Ignotus aenigmaticus began showing up in the entomological literature as the name for Slosson’s beetle.
Five years later, Slosson published another paper, telling the story of the accidental naming and providing a much better, more conventionally structured description of the beetle. It’s well worth quoting this paper at more length:
My paper, though it contained nothing which was not strictly true, was unfortunately written in a somewhat flippant, would-be humourous style, its colloquial diction and tone of levity – if not absolute irreverence – being quite out of place in a scientific periodical. This, as I should have known from sad experience, was a grave error. No conscientious naturalist should possess, or recognize in others the possession of, a sense of humour. As might have been anticipated, painful results followed my blunder. In writing the sketch referred to, I had not dreamed of making a scientific description of the odd coleopter, or of giving a generic or specific name. But I carelessly introduced the following sentence : ” Shall I ever find other specimens of what I have sometimes, in chat over my discovery, styled Ignotus aenigmaticus?” I wrote the absurd name with a smile, which l somehow fancied would be caught and interpreted aright, even by far-away readers of my humble paper. Eheu! Alas! Alack ! How little I realized what I was doing. I was not long in ignorance. For I very soon learned that, all unwittingly, I had, at least in the opinion of some of our most distinguished and learned entomologists, created a genus and species, and I had given to them names which, however ridiculous and inappropriate, must henceforth and forever cling to these dainty little creatures, these curios among coleoptera and perhaps be linked, too, with my own unworthy name. My protests, my plea that I “didn’t go to do it,” were all in vain.
This passage hits on a couple of things that, a century later, are interesting and important.
First: humour. In Slosson’s day, perhaps scientists weren’t supposed to have senses of humour, but they could still publish amusing writing (as she did in her papers). That’s a lot harder now. It does happen, mind you – not in lengthy passages like Slosson’s, but in small witticisms and subtle jokes. I tell the story here of two attempts I’ve made to insert jokes in papers – one successful, and one quashed in review – and I’ve written at more length elsewhere about humour and beauty in scientific writing. For reasons that are a little unclear, it’s more accepted to use humour in Acknowledgements and in paper titles; even this practice is uncommon and often disparaged, but at least it can happen. I think the general resistance to humour is a shame: our literature could use a little relief from its usual stodginess.
Second: naming. Why did Ignotus aenimaticus catch on? The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature defines what “counts” as a valid act of naming: roughly, that it includes a description of the species and that it’s done in a publication that’s reasonably available to scientists. Slosson’s first (1903) designation of Ignotus aenimaticus likely meets the former criterion and definitely meets the latter; her second (1908) designation definitely meets both. It probably doesn’t matter that she was joking. That might sound like a defect in the Code, but I don’t think it is. The reason we have a quasilegalistic Code to govern naming is that our system of scientific naming is designed to produce names that are precise, unambiguous, and global. “Precise” means one name for each species; “unambiguous” means it’s easy to tell which name for a species is the right one; and “global” means that everyone, worldwide, agrees on and uses the same name.** The rules that caught up Ignotus aenigmaticus help confer the “unambiguous” property. It’s more important that we easily recognize what “counts” as a naming than it is for us to have extremely complex rules that can detect and set aside a naming made accidentally or in jest. Ignotus isn’t, it turns out, the only example of a species being accidentally named! In Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, I tell the story of Aphyosemnion roloffi: a fish named accidentally by Erhard Roloff, after himself. (Yes, really.)
So: I’m on record (including in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing) as advocating for scientists to be more willing to use, and accept, humour in scientific writing. I’m even completely fine with – even fond of – funny Latin names. But there’s an intersection of humour and naming that, when occupied by a writer, just creates problems. Slosson, with Ignotus aenigmaticus, found that intersection.*** Be funny, yes; but please try to avoid accidentally naming a species.
© Stephen Heard November 29, 2022
Image: Ignotus aenigmaticus, male and female, © U. Schmidt CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikipedia.org
*^Those alliterations are my fault, not hers, and I realize that the last one is lame. I’m substantially sorry.
**^If you know much about taxonomy and naming, you’ll know that there’s a lot of complexity hiding behind this summary, and that these three properties aren’t always attained right away. But that’s a much longer story.
***^Perhaps fortunately, it turns out that Ignotus aenigmaticus wasn’t actually new to science anyway. It had been described by Motschulsky in 1839 as Thylodrias contractus, and since that name is older that A. aenigmaticus, under the Code it’s the correct one. This saves us trying to decide whether Slosson’s first or second description “counts” – whether, technically, it’s Ignotus aenigmaticus Slosson 1903 or Ignotus aenigmaticus Slosson 1908. Both names are “junior synonyms” of Thylodrias contractus.