Wonderful Latin Names: Zyzyxia lundellii

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in my obsession with weird and wonderful Latin names – I think the last one I blogged about was Ignotus aenigmaticus, last November. But my obsession hasn’t abated. (You’d think writing a whole book about eponymous Latin names might have gotten it out of my system – but you’d be wrong.) Today: the tremendously euphonious, and alphabetically privileged, Zyzyxia lundellii (a plant of the aster family, native to Guatemala and Belize).

It’s mostly the genus name I admire: Zyzyxia. Doesn’t that just spring from your tongue? Why, you might wonder, Zyzyxia? Well, there’s a story.* The genus was named by John Strother in 1991, who took advantage of Carl Linnaeus’s most brilliant innovation in naming. No, not binomials; instead, I mean the separation of the labeling function of names from the descriptive function of names. With Linnaeus’s naming system, for the first time names didn’t have to describe the species or genera they labeled. Names could then be eponymous, or funny, or almost anything else. Even, according to both the Zoological and Botanical Codes, arbitrary combinations of letters that don’t mean anything at all (beyond their reference to the species in question, of course). This freedom is what makes taxonomic naming arguably the most creative act in all of science.

That “arbitrary combination of letters” possibility came in handy for Strother. When he decided that the plant previously named Oyedaea lundellii (by Harold Robinson, in 1979) really didn’t fit into the genus Oyedaea, it needed a new generic name. But Strother’s monograph on Whatchamacallit lundellii and its relatives was already being typeset, and adding a new generic name to the treatment could have meant resetting the entire manuscript. Having to do that, these days, is moderately expensive and annoying; 30 years ago, it was extremely expensive and annoying. So, Strother reports, he was told that he could revise his paper to add another generic name – but only if that name came at the end (so there’d be less resetting to be done). There was already a Zexmenia, and thus not a lot of room at the end of the alphabet – and so Zyzyxia was born. (In the monograph, Strother only says the name was “arbitrarily formed”. It would have been amusing to have the full story there; but sadly, reviewers and editors are not always receptive to humour in scientific writing.)

Zyzyxia came last in Strother’s monograph, but believe it or not, it wouldn’t come last in a more comprehensive listing of generic names. Courtesy of curioustaxonomy.net, we learn that there’s a cicadellid (planthopper) genus Zyzza, a weevil genus Zyzzyva, a wasp genus Zyzzyx,** a snail genus Zyzzyxdonta, and a sponge-inhabiting hydrozoan genus Zyzzyzus. One wonders if Strother’s typesetting predicament is not too terribly uncommon…

What about lundelli? Robinson’s naming of Oyedaea lundellii doesn’t explain the etymology, but it’s fairly clear that the name refers to Cyrus Longworth Lundell (1907-1994), a botanist who worked extensively in Belize and Guatemala and who collected (with Elias Contreras, about whom I know nothing) the holotype of the species. The University of Texas at Austin’s Lundell Herbarium is named for the same Lundell, and holds his very extensive collections. Except that “his” collections is misleading, and there’s another story there – because what the Lundell Herbarium holds is actually “the collections of C.L. and Amelia Lundell”. It turns out that Amelia Anderson Lundell was a botanical artist, and Cyrus’s wife and frequent co-collector, and I’d like to know more about her. There’s a tendency for wives of natural history collectors to be dismissed as passive helpmeets, with the couple’s joint work credited to the husband. (I dug into the similar case of Charles and Mabel Alexander in Chapter 19 of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.) Thus, I very much hope that Robinson actually named Oyedaea (now Zyzyxia) lundellii for both Lundells. If he did, I wish he had said so.***

So, Zyzyxia lundelli. Like Salacca zalacca and Upupa epops, it’s fun to say. Enjoy yourself.

© Stephen Heard  May 16, 2023

Image: Zyzyxia lundellii, specimen from (appropriately) the Lundell Herbarium at the University of Texas. © Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, CC BY-SA 4.0.

*^There usually is. I discovered this one via Mark Isaak’s curioustaxonomy.net, which is a ton of fun; and I confirmed the details by email with John Strother (pers. comm. March 14, 2023).

**^Which, of course, is exactly the sound it makes when you’ve got it in a jar and are taking it home to find out what it is.

***^Taxonomists, I’m begging you: please explain the etymologies of your new species names in your descriptions! It’s not a requirement of the nomenclatural Codes, but naming-nerds like me will be forever grateful.


4 thoughts on “Wonderful Latin Names: Zyzyxia lundellii

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I don’t think so. That’s Zzyzyx, not Zyzyx, and I doubt anyone would have missed the excuse to use the double Z. In any case it’s only been named that since 1944 and several of the names predate that. I think it’s more likely just convergence – there are only so many pronounceable ways to make a word at the end of the alphabet!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. herbariociidir

    I agree that it would be great to give the specific epithet for the Lundells, and not only for him. But it was not the case. The epithet for them would be lundelliorum.



Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.