The tongue-twisting horror – or beauty – of the names of organisms: a Linnaean heritage

Sometimes, your name is a tell-tale sign of who you are, or your heritage if you wish. Not too long ago, the surname Andersson logically enough meant “the son of Anders” in my native frozen northern country of Sweden. Albeit not necessarily the case any longer – and to be quite honest it very rarely is – if your family name is indeed Andersson, at least you probably come from, or have your roots in, Sweden. (In fact, Andersson is currently the most common family name in Sweden – it usually varies between that and Johansson as the alternative top competitor.) If your name is Li or Wang, you probably come from China and if you are a Smith, you are probably British or North American. Even your first name can reveal something about you – if you are a Gandalf, Frodo or a Leia (yes, they do exist as names even outside the book/movie screen characters), your parents (or you – if renamed) probably have seen too many movies. Finally, if I am allowed to express some prejudiced ideas only for the sake of this tale, if you answer to the name Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet or Diva, your folks are probably deeply involved in spiritualism or New Age culture (or your father was in fact the late, great Frank Zappa).

Anyhow, along those lines, you can deduce the meaning of the scientific names of organisms, usually though with much higher precision. Depending on the Latinised form or ending of a name, one can determine whether a species is, for example, named after its place of discovery, a characteristic trait or a person.

The Latin names of different organisms reverberate through all biological sciences, including my personal field of research that deals with the long dead creatures of deep time – palaeontology. Although many of these names could very well be classified as annoying tongue twisters that make many people cringe and immediately lose interest, they are very important. (As a brief comment, it should be mentioned that this does not seem to be the case when it comes to children – instead of being deterred they usually are apt pupils at learning dinosaur names by heart, regardless how long and strangely spelled they are.)Just like species of living plants and animals, those of fossils are named using the so-called binomial nomenclature. This simply means that a species name is unique, divided into two parts (thus representing a binomen), and consists of a genus (such as Homo) and a species epithet (sapiens). As most people probably already know, a species name is furthermore written in italic style as in this magazine (sometimes underlined instead) and the genus name has a capital initial letter whereas the species epithet always has a lower case ditto, just like in our own species – Homo sapiens. Unlike the genus name, which may very well stand alone, a species epithet can never be written by itself. From the genus rank and higher up in the so-called hierarchical zoological system (family, order and so on) there is only one name (the name is uninominal) and, except for the genus, they are not written in italics.

It was Swedish naturalist extraordinaire, Carl von Linné (1707-1778) – I personally like to refer to him as our only true Swedish “biology superhero” – who introduced the current naming system, or at least refined and firmly established its use. To some perhaps better known by his Latinized name, Carolus Linnaeus, left an impressive legacy and devoted his life to understanding the living world around him, spending countless hours dedicated to formally describing and naming plants and animals. One of his major legacies is of course the binomial nomenclature.

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