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.

The biological nomenclature, the admittedly rather dry scientific discipline that governs the naming of living and extinct organisms, is wholly objective and governed by a strict set of rules and regulations. Just like industrial countries have their respective legislation and law books, there are “law books” within the biological nomenclature, such as the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature for animals and the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature for plants. (There are similar books also for bacteria and other organisms, but these are probably less well known.) In cumbersome and highly bureaucratic lingo, these “law books” instruct scientists what we can and cannot do, how to name newly discovered organisms, how to adequately Latinise names and how to disentangle an historical nomenclatural fallacy.

A scientific name of a species can be easily decoded because all new species described must contain an “etymology” or an explanatory derivation of the name. However, after a while and with some experience, you learn to interpret the names and you can usually crack them without necessarily reading the etymology. As mentioned above, new taxa are usually baptised in accordance with their appearance: Homo sapiens – the wise, modern, or thinking man (this may obviously be debated sometimes), Tyrannosaurus rex – where Tyrannosaurus means terrifying or tyrannical lizard and rex is king in Latin, or Triceratops – three horns in the face.

Figure 1
Fig. 1. The skull of Triceratops really justifies the name of the dinosaur, as it literally means ‘three horns in the face’. (Photo by Mats E. Eriksson.)

Also common are names based on the provenance or place of discovery: Ramphoprion gotlandensis – from the island of Gotland in Sweden and names honouring important historical, living or deceased characters in that particular field of research, for example, Linnaea borealis – after Carl von Linné.

Sometimes, the genus name of a species is abbreviated and everyone who sees T. rex knows that it stands for Osborn’s celebrity dinosaur species. Well, as an interesting popular music analogy, the eponymous rock band funnily enough went through a similar metamorphosis. Mark Bolan started his well-known outfit T. Rex in 1967, by that time named Tyrannosaurus Rex. Four albums into their career, they changed the name and went with T. Rex until Bolan’s death in 1977. Perhaps Bolan not only wanted a shorter and more powerful name for his band, but possibly, he also had an interest in the science of biological nomenclature (consciously or not)?

In particularly unique cases, fossils have been given popular “nicknames”, which are even better known and well-used than their scientific names. The most famous specimen of one of our small ancestors, the extinct hominin Australopithecus afarensis, is known as “Lucy” after the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was played regularly during the excavations and to celebrate the discovery. More recently a 47myr-old primate received the popular nickname “Ida”, after the daughter of discoverer, Norwegian palaeontologist Jørn Hurum.

Fossil aficionados have probably also heard of the famous “Sue”, which is the nickname of specimen FMNH PR 2081, which is the most complete and best-preserved skeleton of T. rex ever found.

Figure 2
Fig. 2. A reconstruction of the skull of ‘Lucy’, which is the nickname of the most famous specimen of the hominin Australopithecus afarensis. The skull is approximately 16cm tall and the bright parts represent actual skeletal pieces found of the individual, whereas the remainder is reconstructed. (Photo by Mats E. Eriksson.)

Despite its inherent bureaucracy and potential as an efficient sleeping pill, I personally think that there is a real beauty associated with the biological nomenclature. I know that it sounds grandiloquent and introvert all at once, but let me explain. At a number of times, I have been out in the field or at a conference somewhere and discussed palaeontology with colleagues from different corners of the world. Although there may have been significant language barriers between us and we try to communicate in more or less articulate English, we all know the Latin scientific names of fossils. If I holler Glyptagnostus reticulatus, at least all the Cambrian connoisseurs around me know that I have found the world-renowned, minute agnostoid (a group of extinct, trilobite-like arthropods) species. So, at least we can all unite over the fossils. This allows us also to, at least partly, comprehend research papers written in foreign languages that use different alphabets (for example, the Cyrillic alphabet), since the taxonomic names are still provided in Latin.

Figure 3
Fig. 3. It is not only an exceptionally well-preserved primate fossil from the 47myr-old Messel Konservat Lagerstätte in Germany, Ida is also one of the very few fossils with a popular nickname, which probably is more famous than its real species name: Darwinius masillae. The entire Ida specimen measures approximately 58cm from head to the tip of the tail. (Photo by Jørn Hurum.)

Just as Bill is short for William and Dick is short for Richard in England and the USA, and Lasse is ‘short’ for Lars in Sweden, we could say that there are national nicknames for most (or at least many) living organisms. The problem with these nicknames is that they are usually of highly limited utility. It all boils down to the context. Although I would suspect that it feels easier and usually works significantly better to say “isbjörn” instead of Ursus maritimus in my country, the Swedish nickname for the “Arctic teddy bear” is not very useful in international settings. All (or many) nations have their own nickname, such as polar bear (English), Eisbär (German), ours blanc or ours polaire (French) and orso polare (Italian).

Figure 4
Fig. 4. Glyptagnostus reticulatus – named after the intricate net-like pattern on the head and tail shields, which are a few millimetres in diameter. It is a key index fossil, the first appearance datum of which marks the base of the uppermost series of the Cambrian System, known as the Furongian. (Photo by Fredrik Terfelt.)

Therefore, I think the universally applicable binomial nomenclature is beautiful, as it allows us to communicate across all language barriers. It is a democratic, humanistic and universal language, and nobody needs to feel alienated.

About the author

Mats E Eriksson is a professor of palaeontology at the Department of Geology at Lund University in Sweden. He primarily works on Palaeozoic microfossils and tries to reconstruct and understand ancient organisms and ecosystems. Besides research and teaching, Mats has a deep interest in scientific outreach and adores it when different disciplines – such as science, arts and music – amalgamate.


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