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What’s in a Name?

By John S. Powers

Photo by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Ordinary folks call this critter a gopher, not a turtle. When a naturalist calls it Gopherus polyphemus no one is confused. Photo by the Alabama Department of Conservation
and Natural Resources

Once upon a time in the mid 1700s, a Swedish botanist/physician named Carolus Linnaeus sought to simplify and clarify a complicated, confusing situation.

For years, naturalists from many countries had been attempting to chronicle, organize and make sense of the world around them. New types of animals and plants were constantly being discovered and named, most frequently, in the language of the discoverer.

All too often, however, any given animal was likely to be “rediscovered” by a researcher from another country and renamed in another language. International communication among scientists was much slower and more difficult in those days, and much confusion arose from different researchers referring to the same organism by different names, often not even realizing they were doing so.

Linnaeus’ idea was to assign each species a two-part name using Latin.

The first part would refer to the animal’s genus (a group of creatures to which it was most closely related) and the second part would refer to the creature specifically (the specific epithet).

Latin, a language that was read but not commonly spoken, was widely known and used among scholars. It was perfect. Using Latin exclusively would not only provide a relatively familiar basis for international communication, but would avoid petty, nationalistic bickering regarding whose language to use.

Over time Linnaeus’ system has been accepted and is now used worldwide among scientific circles. The trouble is, Linnaeus’ “binomial nomenclature” (a fancy way of referring to the aforementioned two-part naming system) hasn’t yet filtered down to common folks.

Once upon a time, in the late 1900s, an eager if naïve, young researcher was dispatched from the confines of Auburn University in Alabama into the wilds lower Alabama, where he learned trout fishing was a favorite pastime for many of the local people.

The trouble for the young researcher was that he was unaware of any species of trout (properly named in Latin, naturally) existing in extreme southern Alabama. A thorough search of various reference books supported his surprise at the popularity of trout fishing in the region. None of the ranges for any known trout species extended nearly far enough south.

The young scientist was further intrigued when a bit of subtle snooping revealed that the full name (in English, anyway) applied to this unknown southern fish was “green trout,” and that they were apparently common in the ponds, lakes, large streams and rivers of the area. The naïve young scholar was embarrassed to find that the “green trout” in lower Alabama were just plain largemouth bass in east central Alabama.

Such is the problem with common names.

People living in the region where an animal occurs may have a very different name for the creature than even the accepted common name (in English) used in reference books, textbooks, field guides and other official sources. Examples are many and varied.

For most people in most places, the word “salamander” brings to mind an amphibian, more or less shaped like a lizard, having smooth, slimy skin which lives in the water or in other moist places. In parts of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, however, the term “salamander” refers to a fur-covered mammal having large, exposed front teeth, which lives and burrows underground. It is believed that the name “salamander” may have been derived from “sandy mounder,” a reference to the piles of sand the Southeastern pocket gopher pushes up in the process of building its burrows.

Wait a minute. Did I refer to “gophers” as furry mammals living in underground burrows? There I go again, causing more confusion.

While that description is pretty close to the image raised for most people, in parts of the Southeastern United States a very different animal comes to mind when “gophers” are mentioned. For many in this region, gophers are not furry or mammalian at all, but hard-shelled, beaked, scaly-skinned reptiles. These gophers are actually gopher tortoises, which in fact, do spend a good deal of time in burrows.

So, what can be done to relieve this continued confusion?

Back To YBO Home PageObserve, inquire, pay attention and don’t assume too much. Once upon a time, in the 1500s (well before Linnaeus’ time) William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” That’s a nice thought, but what if roses in some remote location are black and white and furry all over?

Be aware, then take care with “common” names.

Story by John S. Powers
Area Wildlife Biologist
Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

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