The unexpected comedy of Latin animal and plant names

28 Oct|John Wright

The pig-footed bandicoot has a fine tail, but was named Chaeropus ecaudatus, meaning "pig-footed and without a tail"

Natural historian John Wright has done an extraordinary thing: he has written a very funny book about taxonomy. Here  he explains why he loves Latin plant and animal names

“WHY are you writing a book on the one thing in biology that everyone hates?” is a question I have been asked many times over the last few years. I become rather defensive and try to explain that Latin names are really rather interesting, don’t you know, and their history completely fascinating and there are all these rules that govern them which are a hoot and look like something out of Deuteronomy, and Latin names are so important and people should learn about them, really, no really. To sum up, I thought the book would be fun to write and fun to read.

I have enjoyed Latin names for nearly fifty years, ever since I discovered the name of a plant I found in the New Forest on a model airplane flying expedition. It was the sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. I still recall with pleasure learning that it meant “Dewy thing with round leaves”. But it was not plants that would become my obsession, it was fungi. Mycologists, especially humble field mycologists like myself, are uniquely placed to learn the Latin names of their quarry for the simple reason that, for all but a handful, Latin names are the only ones that fungi possess. And so it is that nearly two thousand Latin names have lodged themselves in my brain. But are any of them fun?

Fun, of course, is the very last thing people associate with Latin names. They are, or at least are considered to be, incomprehensible, unpronounceable barriers to understanding and (it is often suspected) a fiendish device with which scientists establish and maintain their superiority over the layman. Understandable views, and the first two are partially true (OK, all three) but Latin names keep biology from the chaos that would result were common names used instead. People like common names but, worldwide, a single plant may have two hundred or more such names – which one would be used? Furthermore, most organisms studied by scientists do not possess a common name – who, apart from a specialist, needs to call a little bug living inside the wing case of a cockroach anything?

Still no fun though. But it seems that scientists have a sense of humour. The naming of a species provides a perfect opportunity for self-expression and many cannot resist the temptation. Linnaeus, the founding father of the naming system, set the gold standard for playful names and this tradition has been scrupulously maintained by his successors. For example he provided us with Upupa epops, the hoopoe (from Aristophane’s play The Birds) and Clitoria, a member of the pea family with a rather distinctive flower shape. The floodgates were open and a host of absurd and often plain rude names were coined. On the great databases that catalogue the living world there exists such glories as Pieza kake (a fly), Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis (weevil), Kamera lens (a heterotrophic flagellate), Abra cadabra (fossil bivalve), Scaptia beyonceae, a horsefly blessed with a perfectly round and golden rear end, Inocybe eutheles (“fibrecap” mushroom with “nice tits”) and, my all-time favourite, Erica canaliculata (a plant). All but the last (which requires a tiny amount of wilful mispronunciation) are clear cases of scientists having fun.

Like the amenable Erica canaliculata, many names are inadvertently amusing. Zoologists’ notorious triple tautonyms such a Troglodytes troglodytes trodlodytes and Gorilla gorilla gorilla (repectively the wren and the, well, gorilla), arise from the application of the complex rules of nomenclature – they just happen. Misnomers are scattered throughout nomenclature. The Latin name of the pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus ecaudatus (pig-footed and without a tail), does possess a tail and a fine one at that, but the original specimen on which the name was based had lost his or hers to a predator. Some names are amusing by just doing their job – the Latin name of the nilgai, a large Asian deer, is Boselaphus tragocamelus. It means ‘ox-deer goat-camel’, an entirely fitting name because that is exactly what the poor thing looks like.

ENDS

John Wright is the author of the new book, The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names (Bloomsbury). 

John is a passionate natural historian (he is particularly into fungi) and author of the River Cottage Handbooks Mushrooms, Edible Seashore and Hedgerow. As well as writing for national papers, he often appears on the River Cottage series for Channel 4. 

 A member of the British Mycological Society and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, John gives lectures on natural history and every year he takes around fifty ‘forays’ showing people how to collect food – plants from the hedgerow, seaweeds and shellfish from the shore and mushrooms from pasture and wood. He lives in West Dorset.