Bulletin 15 - November 1981: What's in a Name

What's in a Name

by Giles Roche, F.L.S., F.R.E.S.

A complaint voiced very frequently at meetings concerns the use of scientific, or Latin, names instead of vernacular ones. Why do we use them? What are they made up of? Why do they appear in different forms? These are some of the questions that one hears and which it is the purpose of this note to try to answer.

There are two reasons why we have to use Latin names. Firstly, all major animals have a vernacular name in each language. Thus, while in England we refer to a 'sparrowhawk', the French call it 'epervier' and the Germans 'Sperber' (I haven't got any more dictionaries with me!). To serious ornithologists the world over it is Accipiter nisus. Even in 'English' we can run into problems - what in England are called 'wasps' (of rotten plum fame) the Americans call 'yellow jackets'. A hornet to an Australian is an insect not even in the same family as the beast called by that name in England. In order that scientists may communicate with each other without having to learn dozens of languages, they use a universal name for each animal which is understandable to all specialists in the group of whatever nationality.

The second reason for there being a scientific name is quite simply the fact that only a minority of animals have a vernacular name in any language, only mammals, birds, the more showy and larger butterflies and moths and some reptiles and fish. The smaller and less obvious insects and other organisms are literally anonymous to the public. A few years ago a rather absurd publication was issued giving English names to all the British moths. It had an unfortunate consequence. A group of small moths are often referred to as 'bagworms' after the cases carried about by the larvae. The proposed English names called all of them 'bags' distinguishing them by a literal translation of the Latin specific names. One, named after a prominent English microlepidopterist, was given the name 'Wakeley's Bag'. One gathers that Mrs Wakeley, like Queen Victoria, was not amused.

The basic 'kind' of animal is a 'species'. Related and therefore more or less similar species are grouped together into a 'genus' and genera are likewise grouped together into 'families'. This grouping continues at higher and higher levels until it finishes up with the Animal Kingdom itself embracing all animals. For our present purpose we can confine ourselves to the genus and the species. Every animal must have a two-word name. The first denotes the genus which includes the species concerned, and the second is the specific name of the species within the genus. A species may or may not be divided into several subspecies - these are usually used to mark geographical differences within a species - and if so, there is a third word added denoting the species within the species.

This two or perhaps three-word name is the unique index to that particular animal and is universally applied. As such it must be stable; there is no point in having a name which changes the whole time. This stability is achieved by application of the 'Law of Priority'. This means that the name first given to an animal will normally always be its name. The exception to the rule is if the name has already been used, in other words, if it is a 'homonym'. A junior homonym (the second time the name is used) cannot be used because it would thereby remove the uniqueness of the name. Often the same animal is described by different authors each giving it a different name. The name given in the later published description then loses out and becomes a junior 'synonym', with the older name prevailing having priority.

It is normal but not mandatory when using a scientific name to follow it with the name of its author, the scientist who bestowed the name when describing the species. When printed, the name of the animal is in italics as it is a Latin expression, but the author's name is not and remains in Roman type. In handwriting or typing the generic and specific names are underlined instead.

Frequently, as more species are discovered and described in a genus, it is found more satisfactory to split the genus into two or more groups of species, each group having some characters in common which are lacking in the other groups. This will entail some of the species originally described in one genus being transferred to another. This is indicated by the author's name being put into parentheses; thus, the large black locust-catching wasp called nowadays Prionyx subfuscatus (Dahlbom) was originally described by Dahlbom in the genus Sphex as Shex subfuscatus Dahlbom.

Before a genus gets split in this way, it is common to indicate this grouping of species within the genus by using 'subgenera'. Where this is the case the subgeneric names are put in brackets between the generic and specific names and, like the generic one, will have a capital letter. These subgeneric names are not mandatory and form no part of the 'unique index' and are used merely to indicate relationships.

In a list of species, having used the generic name once in full, it is conventional to abbreviate it to its capital letter for subsequent species. Similarly, in a paper dealing with a species or genus, this method of abbreviation would be used, provided always that it did not cause any confusion.

Other conventions will be encountered. A species whose name is not known is referred to as 'generic-name sp.'. The plural of this abbreviation of 'species' is 'ssp.'. Its affinity to another named species may be indicated thus 'generic-name sp. aff. other-species-name'.

The rules for using names, synonymy, homonymy and other problems are laid down in 'International Code of Zoological Nomenclature'. This is a legal style 'act' consisting of a Preamble, 86 Articles, five Appendices, an official Glossary, and a detailed Index, all items in parallel English and French versions. Quoting the Preamble seems a good way to conclude this note:

'The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is the system of rules and recommendations authorised by the International Congresses of Zoology. The object of the Code is to promote stability and universality in the scientific names of animals, and to ensure that each name is unique and distinct. All its provisions are subservient to these ends, and none restricts the freedom of taxonomic thought or action.

Priority is the basic principle of zoological nomenclature. Its application, however, under conditions specified in the Code, may be moderated to preserve a long-accepted name in its accustomed meaning.

When stability of nomenclature is threatened in an individual case, the strict application of the Code may under specified conditions be suspended by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.'


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