The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names
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Latin names--frequently unpronounceable, all too often wrong and always a tiny puzzle to unravel--have been annoying the layman since they first became formalized as scientific terms in the eighteenth century.
Why on earth has the entirely land-loving Eastern Mole been named Scalopus aquaticus, or the Oxford Ragwort been called Senecio squalidus--‘dirty old man’? What were naturalists thinking when they called a beetle Agra katewinsletae, a genus of fish Batman, and a Trilobite Han solo? Why is zoology replete with names such asChloris chloris chloris (the greenfinch), and Gorilla gorilla gorilla (a species of, well gorilla)?
The Naming of the Shrew will unveil these mysteries, exploring the history, celebrating their poetic nature and revealing how naturalists sometimes get things so terribly wrong. With wonderfully witty style and captivating narrative, this book will make you see Latin names in a whole new light.
— s is used as in ‘section’, unless it comes between two vowels or after a consonant at the end of a word, in which case it sounds more like ‘z’ (as in ‘rose’).26 Beyond this it is my intention to remain almost silent, because the task of teaching pronunciation with rules is quite impossible and any attempt would be too long and extremely boring. It would also be pointless since, as noted above, the rules are more what you would call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. However, I would like to
Naturalists went on sprees inventing new (binomial) names for species that they thought Linnaeus had missed, or changing existing binomials to names that were more to their liking. Synonyms (several names for one species) and homonyms (several species for one name) proliferated. Attempts were made to introduce rules to bring some order to the naming of nature. In the spirit of the endless disagreement that has remained a constant throughout taxonomic history, the first system, the Strickland
been the cause of much embarrassment over the years, when associated specimens are found not to agree with the species described. In 1980, Adrian Pont discovered two specimens of fly labelled respectively Musca meteorica and M. domestica in the Linnaean collection at Burlington House in London, neither of which was what it purported to be.32 Similarly, in 1974, Nourish and Oliver found several different species in a single collection of lichens that Linnaeus had named Lichen rangiferinus.33
natural hierarchy unavoidable while refusing to accept evolution. Between them they had something close to the answer, but it was in England, not France, that the puzzle was finally solved. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) Naturalists, as we have seen, try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? . . . Expressions such as that famous one by Linnæus . . . that the characters do not make the genus, but that the
determined forms so completely unlike one another (one grey/green and smooth, the other white and woolly with bright red fronds at the end) that it was long thought to be two species. It was only after molecular analysis that the creatures were found to be a single species. Such stages or states in the life cycle of an organism are called morphs, and they sit unhappily with traditional type-based thinking. Similarly, in mycology, there is the problem of species that exist, potentially, in two