The Art of Naming

Last week we muddied the tree of life. This week, the long human attempt to straighten it all out by giving all the pieces names. In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl explores the history and principles of taxonomic naming.

Esoteric? I don’t think so. He dabbles a little in common names, those vernacular names for life-forms, in of themselves voluminous as all get out. For instance, crayfish from the English mispronunciation of the Old French crevise (écrivise in modern French) to the Louisiana crawfish, as these “fish” crawled rather than swam. But what he’s really concerned with is biological nomenclature, also known as scientific names, Latin names (they also include Greek), and binomials (there are also trinomials).

“One could say that the art of taxonomy is the ability to discern between intra- and interspecific variability. One can always find differences between any two animals, but how big do the differences need to be for talk of two species to be justified? Or vice versa, how many differences should be tolerated for two animals to be rightly interpreted as elements of a shared species?”

Homo sapiens: genus and specific epithet. Long time readers know I often pay attention to these things: there’s much to learn in them. (H. sapiens is rather pretentious and presumptuous, for two things.) For birds, I have Choate’s invaluable Dictionary of American Bird Names (there are several editions out there). And some are pretty easy to figure out, even without a resource. Think of the plants and animals with the specific epithet virginiana or virginiensis: pretty clear these were first found in Virginia, which in colonial times theoretically extended to the West Coast, or parts nearby.

I was surprised to learn here you can buy your way into a binomial by giving money, as “charity,” to the taxonomists. Usually when a person’s surname is part of a binomial it’s given as an honor by the namer (who can’t name the species after him/her/their selves). So there are some silly ones, named after favored performers and other uninteresting people. I prefer when there’s some actual data in the name: like that Purple Gallinule who visited Brooklyn last month: Porphyrio martinicus, the purple swamp hen from Martinique.

By the way, Rick Wright is an excellent source for the histories of bird naming.

3 Responses to “The Art of Naming”

  1. 1 Sherry Felix November 12, 2018 at 6:56 am

    At a Linnaean NY meeting on February 13, 2017 there was a lecture on Linnaeus:
    “Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything – Anita Sanchez.
    Carolus Linnaeus, the great eighteenth-century naturalist, named and classified more than twelve thousand species of plants and animals. As a physician, he saw the need for a clear and simple system of nomenclature and classification for plants used for medicine, and then went on to set himself an ambitious goal: naming all the living things in the world. His classification of humans as just another species of mammals was highly controversial; his use of a “sexual system” to classify plants based on their reproductive parts was outrageous. But the obstinate and outspoken scientist battled his critics fiercely, all the way to the Vatican. He also became a beloved teacher, leading eager students on rowdy field trips into forests and gardens. Today Linnaeus’s work is the basis of the classification system used by scientists worldwide. Author Anita Sanchez will discuss her research on Linnaeus’s life, who began his career as a curious little boy fascinated by the bugs and flowers in his father’s garden, and the process of writing a book for young readers about the great naturalist’s turbulent career.”

    The Art of Naming looks like an interesting book. I put it in my list..

    • 2 mthew November 13, 2018 at 6:15 am

      I’m sorry to have missed that Linnaean Society meeting. They often conflict with another Tuesday night commitment, and other times (like tonight!) conflict with Brooklyn Bird Club meetings.

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