Images: Charles Darwin, age 33 (with his son William Erasmus Darwin), public domain; Leucospermum bolusii, photo by Andrew Massyn, released to public domain.
When I was a grad student, it was de rigeur to proclaim that every good idea was already in The Origin of Species, and to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things. It’s probably the astonishingly rightness of the Origin – along with the rest of Darwin’s writing – that makes his huge error stand out so conspicuously. That huge error, of course, was the idea of blending inheritance. It didn’t work in theory, it wasn’t (even then) consistent with available data, and Darwin should have known both of those things. (His correspondence suggests that he probably did.)
I recently ran across* another Darwinian mistake. Continue reading
Images: Canada jay, by Gavin Schaefer CC BY 2.0 via wikimedia.org. Or maybe it’s a grey jay. Or a whiskey jack. Cougar, by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia.org. Or maybe it’s a puma. Or a painter. Or a mountain lion. Or a catamount. Or a screamer. Or…you get the idea.
It caught my eye, and the media’s, last month: an announcement that the American Ornithological Society would be changing the “official” name of the North American corvid Perisoreus canadensis from “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay”. The grey/Canada jay* is a wonderful bird – handsome, intelligent, and inquisitive – and “grey jay” sells it short, so I’m completely down with using “Canada jay”. But: the notion that there’s any such thing as an “official” common name, or that the AOU gets to say what it is, is deeply weird. Continue reading
Images: Salacca zalacca, botanical print from unknown source, presumed public domain; via Swallowtail Garden Seeds. Salak fruits by Midori CC BY-3.0 via wikimedia.org.
Latin names have a reputation as horribly difficult to pronounce. Sometimes this is true: I’ve worked on the moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis for over 20 years, and I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly. But other Latin names roll wonderfully off the tongue: the clove tree Syzygium and the hoopoe Upupa epops, for example.
Few roll as wonderfully off the tongue as Salacca zalacca, though. Continue reading
Photos: Commerson’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) in the Strait of Magellan, by Miguel Vieira via flickr.com; CC BY 2.0. Bougainvillea by Andrew Schmidt via publicdomainpictures.net, released to public domain. Syngrapha hochenwarthi, by Dumi via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0
Everyone knows, of course, that Latin names are often based on names of people: the namer might choose to honour a friend, a colleague, a celebrity, a prominent public figure, or a deserving scientist. But do namers ever succumb to the temptation to honour themselves? If I were to describe a new goldenrod species, say, could or should I name it Solidago heardi?
I’d never thought about this until I stumbled across a claimed case of such ego-naming. Continue reading
John Wright’s The Naming of the Shrew (Bloomsbury, 2014) is subtitled A Curious History of Latin Names. As you may know, I’ve been curious about Latin (or “scientific” names myself. Stumbling across The Naming of the Shrew, therefore, had me pretty excited*. It turned out to be not quite what I thought, but none the less enjoyable for that.
Wright is a British natural historian with a particular interest in mushrooms (which he doesn’t hesitate to let show). His Curious History is a curious little book. Continue reading
Photos: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via pixabay.com; bust of Pierre Magnol CC BY-SA 3.0 by Albertvillanovadelmoral via wikimedia.org
Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.
Our Garden has hundreds of plant species – many planted, and many more growing wild. That’s just the tip of the botanical iceberg, though – there are about 400,000 plant species on Earth. Keeping track of these is a big challenge, and of course the first step is to give them all names. Continue reading
Photos: S. aromaticum flowers by Hafiz Issadeen CC BY-ND 2.0 via flickr.com; S. aromaticum leaves by Forest & Kim Starr CC BY 3.0 via wikimedia.org.
A couple of weeks ago I described the evolutionary history in each jar of my mango chutney. My chutney has 19 botanical ingredients, and I looked up the Latin name of each one to locate it on the angiosperm phylogeny. I was delighted, in doing so, to discover that cloves are Syzygium aromaticum*.
The species name aromaticum is certainly appropriate to cloves, which have one of the loveliest aromas to grace my kitchen. We can thank Linnaeus for aromanticum, but that’s not what makes the clove tree the 6th installment in my series on Wonderful Latin Names. Instead, it’s the genus name Syzygium that made my day. That’s because it shares roots with one of my very favourite English words, syzygy. Who wouldn’t love a word that flies off the tongue like a feather-fletched arrow leaving a bow? A word with three vowels, all of them y’s? A word with meanings in poetry, biology, and astronomy? Continue reading