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Vengeful Taxonomy (And Other Joys of Scientific Naming)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2014

The Black-tailed Godwit's name seems to mean 'good to eat' in Old English, though they are not typically eaten. (Photo: Steve Round/RSPB)

The Black-tailed Godwit’s name seems to mean ‘good to eat’ in Old English, though they are not typically eaten. (Photo: Steve Round/RSPB)

This is a book review I wrote for The Wall Street Journal:

Latin for Bird Lovers

By Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Timber Press, 223 pages, $24.95

Early this year, a Rutgers University entomologist who had discovered a new species of South American cockroach announced a contest to give it a scientific name: The genus Xestoblatta already existed, but the species name was up for grabs. “Most people have negative feelings about cockroaches, so why not name one out of spite, scorn, or revenge?” Dominic Evangelista wrote. “Got a cheating ex-boyfriend? Hate your boss? Maybe you’re just tired of hearing news about certain celebrities—Xestoblatta justinbieberii, perhaps? You get the idea.” For a bid of about $4,000 (funds that would go to support Mr. Evangelista’s next collecting expedition), anyone could consign an enemy to the seventh circle of scientific immortality. He called it “vengeful taxonomy.”

The incident was a reminder that scientific names, those sometimes cumbersome binomial identifiers, can be more entertaining than we may imagine—a point driven home by “Latin for Bird Lovers,” a book by the husband-and-wife team of Roger Lederer, an ornithologist, and Carol Burr, an artist and former English professor. Their handsomely illustrated account of about 3,000 bird names tells us, among many other things, that the quail genus name Excalfactoria means roughly “source of heat” and derives from the Chinese practice of using these tiny birds as hand-warmers. Almost as oddly, turkey vultures travel under the genus name Cathartes, from the Greek katharsis meaning “cleansing” or “purifying.” The name honors their work clearing away the dead. There’s a genus of flycatchers named Attila, “because of their aggressive nature, as in Attila the Hun.” And such is the richness of avian biodiversity, there’s also a bird genus named after Bleda the Hun, the brother Attila is said to have murdered en route to power.

Birdwatching is hugely popular in the United States: A 2006 study estimated that 48 million Americans participate in some fashion, and spend $36 billion a year at it. But most birders nervously avoid scientific names, because, as the co-authors concede, “it’s nice to be able to speak of the Coppersmith Barbet instead of the tongue-twisting Megalaima haemacephala.” On the other hand, paying attention to scientific names “opens up a whole new way of looking at and understanding birds,” they write. It reveals relationships that might otherwise go unnoticed, and reminds us that similar-sounding common names—American robin and European robin, or meadowlark and lark—can give us false ideas about taxonomic connections. Though Mr. Lederer and Ms. Burr don’t make this point, scientific naming also gives us the opportunity to utter the inexplicably delightful words Upupa epops, the name given to the common hoopoe, in imitation of its call.

The best part of this book, for a beginning birder, will be the sidebars on biology and behavior that are liberally sprinkled among the dictionary-like name entries. For instance, I had not previously encountered the word “zygodactyl,” meaning two toes forward, two back. This trait is what allows birds to sleep perched on a branch without falling off, because a tendon down the backs of the legs pulls these opposite toes together in a curled position around the branch, where they remain until the bird uncurls them to take flight. [Update: See comment below.]

Surprisingly, the actual name explanations that the authors offer are often less satisfying. It’s useful to learn that bald eagles, which are of course not actually bald, get their common name from the word “piebald,” meaning a patch of white. And I had not realized that robins are called “red-breast” because “orange was not a known color until the sixteenth century.” Not all the entries have that much to do with Latin, you will note, and most run for little more than a sentence, with the co-authors explaining that they have been able to make room for further detail “only when we think the reader’s curiosity might be piqued.” So when they tells us that the scientific name Limosa comes from the Latin for “full of mud” while the common name “Black-tailed Godwit” seems to derive “from Old English, meaning good to eat,” they offer no explanation of this apparent culinary contradiction. Likewise, we learn that the genus name of the ostrich, Struthio, “does not quite fit,” because in classical Greek it means “camel sparrow”—but not how it got that name.

One delightful exception to this parsimonious approach has to do with the naming not of a species, but of a spy. The writer Ian Fleming was living in Jamaica and birdwatching with the help of the field guide “Birds of the West Indies,” when he decided that the author’s name—James Bond—had the right strength and simplicity for the hero of his novels. When the real Bond, a Philadelphia ornithologist, discovered this identity theft years later, Fleming joked that he could retaliate by putting Fleming’s name in an insulting fashion on “some particularly horrible species of bird.”

It never happened. In fact, no instances of “vengeful taxonomy” turn up in this book, because it is in truth a coveted honor to be immortalized in the scientific name of one of the 10,000 or so bird species on Earth. New bird discoveries are now exceedingly uncommon, and the chance of getting your name on one is infinitesimally tiny.

But cockroaches? Days after Dominic Evangelista announced his naming contest, another entomologist named May Berenbaum swooped in with a $4,250 bid. The species in question has a pronounced fondness for traps baited with beer, and the male has what Mr. Evangelista described as an “extremely vile” practice of excreting uric acid on the female as a nuptial gift. But Ms. Berenbaum ignored the rich vindictive possibilities, declaring it an honor and a bargain to have her name on “this beer-swilling, uric-acid-excreting cockroach,” which will now enter the annals of science as Xestoblatta berenbaumae.

Mr. Evangelista is currently planning his next expedition, so patrons of science—and people who merely delight in scientific names—might want to start saving now.

One Response to “Vengeful Taxonomy (And Other Joys of Scientific Naming)”

  1. Received by email:

    Hello, Richard. We just read your review of our book in the Wall Street Journal and appreciate your thoughtful reading. You are correct that some of our explanations were short; for many the full explanation, although fascinating, would have been too lengthy. And for some of the unusual names, like camel sparrow for ostrich, we just could not find a solid explanation. Sometimes, time and multiple translations jumble the names. The one I spent the most time on was “imperfect.” I spent hours looking for an explanation and finally found it in a 19th century paper. Apparently the bird specimen was shot and in such bad (read imperfect) shape that it was so named. Actually, it didn’t make it into the book.

    The only misreading in your article is about the term “zygodactyls,” meaning two toes in front and two in back, and applying to birds like cuckoos, parrots, and woodpeckers. Most birds, including these, perch, but when you refer to the birds with a tendon on the back of their leg that helps to wrap the toes around a branch so they can sleep without falling off, you are referring to songbirds/perching birds that have three toes forward and one back (anisodactyl).

    When we took Latin in high school, we didn’t appreciate it much at the time, but it has proven very helpful in our careers as Biology and English professors, and we hope this book will show birdwatchers the value of the language and heighten their enjoyment. Again, thank you.

    Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

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