Fascinated by the Latin names used to identify flora and fauna, John Wright explains the reasoning behind scientific sobriquets.
I like mushrooms. Not necessarily on toast, although that’s fine I like them for their beauty, their scientific interest and, yes, out of plain geeky enthusiasm. So, after 30 years, I began to share my love of them by taking people on fungus forays. However, there was a problem: very few of the many thousands of species of larger fungi that inhabit this country have common names. I’d learnt the Latin names because that was all there was, but, for someone new to mycology, it can be difficult.
Most things have names and I don’t find Tricholoma virgatum any less memorable than the common name for the same species: ashen knight. After all, you have to call it something and learn what that something is. But some people don’t like Latin names; they find them incomprehensible, off-putting and unpronounceable. I, however, have come to love these names with a passion.
The first one I learned was the Latin name (more properly ‘scientific name’ the names are often Greek and merely Latinised) of a plant, not a fungus. I found it in the New Forest in 1965 and discovered, to my delight, that it was called Drosera rotundifolia and was also known as the sundew, a carnivorous plant. I much preferred the Latin name, as it seemed rather poetic, rolling around the tongue.
At that stage, I had yet to be unceremoniously evicted from my Latin class at school (Latin grammar, if not vocabulary, was, and is, an impenetrable subject for me) and easily understood that it meant ‘dewy thing with round leaves’ a useful name that describes the plant perfectly. I was hooked and soon started learning the Latin names of fungi. I can now reel off 1,000 or so with little effort, but that’s just practice, not being clever (although and this is a great bonus it makes you sound clever).
It is to the 18th-century Swedish botanist and all-round naturalist Linnaeus that we owe Latin names as they exist today. Although they were used long before he was born, he was the first to use only two names for a species (before him, names were descriptive phrases in Latin and could stretch to a whole sentence) and to do so with consistency. The chaos that threatened biology with its welter of inconsistent and absurdly long names was averted. At last, a universally accepted and (reasonably) stable name could be created for everything that naturalists discovered.
The first part of a Latin name is the genus name, indicating to which genus a species belongs, and the second part is the ‘specific epithet’ telling us which species in the genus you’re talking about.
Occasionally, when a species is discovered that doesn’t belong to an existing genus, both names are created at the same time, which provides an opportunity for a bit of fun. More often, the taxonomist is stuck with a genus name and only has freedom to provide the specific epithet.
Most Latin names are little puzzles easily solved with a bit of application and a Latin dictionary, as most of them make some sort of sense and are actually useful. Mytilus edulis is the ‘edible mussel’, directly from the Latin; less simply, there is Somateria mollissima literally ‘body (soma) wool (erion) soft (mollis) very (issima)’ or ‘thing with a body covered in very soft wool’ or the eider duck.
The common shrew’s Latin name, Sorex araneus, meaning ‘spider mouse’, refers to the extraordinary, old and misguided belief that, like some spiders, these long-snouted creatures were poisonous. Some are more exciting, such as Bitis arietans the ‘striking, biting thing’ for puff adder.
Generally speaking, taxonomists try to tell us something about an organism in the names they provide. Morphology (shape, colour, size and so on), geography (where it comes from) and habitat are the inspiration for a large number of names, such as Scleranthus polycarpos, the ‘tough flower with many fruits’; Homo floresiensis, the ‘man from Flores’; and Arenaria paludicola, the marsh sandwort (arena is a reference to sand in sandwort and paludicola tells us that it likes living in marshes).
However, less helpfully, another common practice is to name a species after a colleague or to honour someone famous. The plant genus names Osbeckia and Ternstroemia were coined by Linnaeus to honour two of his assistants; John Lindley named the enormous waterlily much loved by garden centres Victoria regia for Queen Victoria.
Even trickier are names that are clear nonsense. The various international codes that govern the naming of the living world make no judgement on the etymology of names, stating merely that they must consist of at least two letters and (believe it or not) be pronounceable. These rules or rather lack of rules provide an endless resource for both the playful taxonomist who wishes to play word games (Charis matic and Euphoria morosa being fine examples of not taking the whole thing too seriously) and for the overburdened taxonomist who needs to name a hundred similar species. Often, the latter are entomologists. Faced with naming several genera of insects en masse, they frequently resort to anagrams to, as it were, fulfil an order.
In the 19th century, a whole swarm of shield-bug genera were created from anagrams of the name of an Italian entomologist, Spinola. They were Lanopis, Nopalis, Planois and Sinopla. Unhelpfulness comes in spades, sometimes, with absurd names such as the bat Anoura caudifera (the tailess bat with a tail) and the mole Scalopus aquaticus, which steadfastly refuses to go anywhere near water.
Few people have views on Latin names at all, but those who do have a single complaint beyond that of their general incomprehensibility and the impossibility of pronouncing half of them. It is that they change all the time. Quite why is a long story frequently, it’s due to new knowledge that requires species being regrouped into new genera and thus acquiring a new genus name and, sometimes, it’s because an earlier name (which takes precedence) is discovered.
Whatever the reason, it’s done systematically and not to keep one step ahead of the police. Stability is the main aim of biological nomen-clature, but it will be a long time coming. How did a subspecies of gorilla come to be called Gorilla gorilla gorilla? What possible excuse is there for calling a flower Clitoria? What was the entomologist thinking when he named a weevil Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis? And how could Oscar Cartwright be so self-centred as to call a scarab beetle Cartwrightia cartwrighti Cartwright? I can, however, reveal how the horsefly, Scaptia beyonceae, came to be named after the pop star. It is blessed with a perfectly round and golden rear end. You have to admit that this Latin name, at least, is pretty cool.
Oenanthe oenanthe—wheatear (from the Greek oinanthe for the first shoots of the vine, indicating its time of arrival)
Crepidula fornicata—slipper limpet (meaning ‘arched little slipper’ and nothing to do with immorality)
Lachesis mutus—bushmaster snake (meaning ‘silent fate’)
Asiamericana asiatica—a fossil fish that evidently couldn’t make up its mind where it came from
Apopyllus now—a spider. With the genus Apopyllus already established, the chance to have a bit of fun was too much for one taxonomist
Furia infernalis—this otherwise unnamed flying worm, notorious for biting people and animals, was given its Latin name by Linnaeus, but, unfortunately, it simply doesn’t exist so is now considered a nomen dubium
Salacca zalacca—salak palm; pure poetry
Boselaphus tragocamelus—the nilgai; it means ‘ox-deer goat-camel’ and describes the poor creature perfectly
Inocybe eutheles—fibrecap toadstool, which is small, cream-coloured and rounded with a little point on the top; the Latin name means ‘fibrecap with nice teats’
Unifolium bifolium—a plant—is literally the ‘one-leafed thing with two leaves’; contradictory names occur occasionally when a particular member of a genus just doesn’t fit what was known about the genus before
John Wright is the author of ‘The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names’ (£14.99), which will be published by Bloomsbury on November 6
This article was originally published in Country Life October 29, 2014