Images: The red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta; © Kristian Peters, CC BY-SA 3.0. Portrait, “Vanessa”, 1868, by John Everett Millais, collection of Sudley House, Liverpool; public domain.
Last week I shipped off the final revision of my forthcoming book, The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.* You know how you just finish a piece of writing, and immediately stumble across something you wish you’d put in? Well, the very next day, I happened to be skimming an old set of short book reviews, looking for – well, I’m not going to tell you what, because I’m keeping the idea for my next book under wraps for now. But serendipity struck, as it does; my eye slid by, then arrested on, a one-paragraph review of Maitland Emmet’s book The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning (1991).** And from that one paragraph I learned how the butterfly genus Vanessa got its name. It’s a fascinating story – and it explains not just the butterfly Vanessa, but every other Vanessa in the world. Continue reading
Image: an Enigma encoding/decoding machine (Greg Goebel, CC 0 via Wikimedia.org). Which, I admit, is only tangentially related to this piece, but it’s pretty cool.
I’ve celebrated many a Latin name on Scientist Sees Squirrel, sometimes for something as simple as the way it sounds, but more often for a story it tells. But this time, I’m celebrating the loss of a Latin name. Not because I didn’t like the lost name; I did. But its loss – or, more precisely, its replacement by a new name – has a lot to tell us about the process of naming and the progress of science. Continue reading
Image: Awaous banana, from a tributary of the Sibun River, Belize; photos © Eric Meng, with permission
I’m sure you’ll agree: this (above) is an utterly enchanting fish, strange and beautiful at the same time. It’s the river goby, a widespread fish of New World subtropical and tropical streams from Florida and Texas south to Peru. I ran across it* two weeks ago, while teaching my tropical ecology field course in Belize. It’s not just its gorgeous patterning; and it isn’t just its startling size (there are about 2,000 species of gobies in the world; few exceed 10 cm in length**, or about half the size of the colossus in the photo). It’s also, at least for me, its name: Awaous banana.
Awaous banana? What kind of psychedelic fever might lead someone to name a fish Awaous banana?
Image: the David Bowie spider, Heteropoda davidbowie. KS Seshadri, CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org
Last week I hit a big milestone. I hit submit not just on another journal paper, but on something much more fun: my new book. I’m both relieved and excited!
The book’s working title is “The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”*. Continue reading
Image: The sorting-hat spider, Eriovixia gryffindori, from Ahmed et al. 2016 Indian J. Arachnology 5:24-27; photo Sumukha J.N., used by permission.
I’ve nearly finished drafting the manuscript of my new book, which will tell some of the stories behind eponymous Latin names (those based on the names of people, like Berberis darwini for Charles Darwin). These names tell so many fascinating stories that I’ve been having a whale of a time with the writing. I hope you’ll soon have nearly as much fun reading it.
The chapter I’m working on at the moment (as I write) is called Harry Potter and the Name of the Species, and it’s about Latin names drawn from fictional characters. Consider, for instance, some names from The Lord of the Rings: Continue reading
If you’ve been following Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I have a little bit of a thing for the etymologies of Latin (or “scientific”) names of organisms. It’s perhaps a bit of a niche interest… but it shouldn’t be; there are fascinating stories behind the names we’ve coined. So much so, in fact, that I’m writing a book on the topic – in particular, about eponymous Latin names (those named after people).
I’ll have more to say about my new book soon; but today, I just wanted to alert you to a recent episode of Liam Taylor’s Natural Reality podcast. On my episode, Liam and I talked about Latin names – about why they’re interesting (to me, and I hope I can convince you, to you too); about how on earth I got interested in the stories behind Latin names; and about some of my favourite names.
Liam’s best question, I think, was this: what makes (for me) a “good” Latin name? My answer was that a good Latin name is one that tells a story. The podcast episode is full of those stories. If you’d like to hear a few of them, you can listen to it, or download it, here.
© Stephen Heard January 10, 2019
Image: Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium via wikimedia.org, © Net-breuer CC BY-SA 3.0.
I have a paper cut-out Nativity scene that comes out every year around Christmas (it’s a childhood tradition that’s stuck with me despite my lack of religious conviction to give it meaning). There’s a donkey near the manger, of course, and seeing it reminded me I’ve been meaning to mention the wonderful (?) etyomology of the Scotch thistle’s Latin name. Scotch thistle is native to Europe and western Asia, although it’s become invasive in many dryish places around the world. And it has a Latin name with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.
Quite a while back, I wrote about the black-billed thrush, saddled with the quite unfortunate name Turdus ignobilis. It doesn’t quite mean “the ignoble turd”, but my inner 9-year-old would like it if it did. But Scotch thistle – ah, my inner 9-year-old can go to town. Continue reading