Wednesday, July 26, 2006

snippets of Linnaeus

It was not originally the custom for Swedes to have family names, instead they used a system of patronymics which changed every generation. Families (prompted by various new motives including the notion of leaving behind a cultural heritage) began to invent their own surnames around 1700; thus the name Linnaeus was taken from a prominent lime tree on the family farm, this tree having already inspired the new surnames of various cousins, e.g. Tiliander.

Linnaeus brought these words into use: "stamen", "pistil", "petal", "sepal". The human experience of flowers before that time involved no understanding or distinction of the parts of a flower. In those days the ground was strewn with roses, flowers, blossoms, but not with rose petals; though these agreeable thingies could be wordlessly seen and their shapes and scents enjoyed, yet in a certain sense a petal could not be conceived. Thus the barmaid who calls you Petal and Pound writing a haiku on the Paris metro are both swimming in a Linnaean sea.

In this biography the non-Linnaean taxonomy proposed as PhyloCode in 1998 is coldly described as "post-modernist".

The binomial names that we now think of as Linnaeus' prinicipal claim to fame were a by-product, called by him the "trivial name". His original idea for a specific name was in fact a uniquely diagnostic name e.g. Convolvulus foliis subrotundis, caule repente, but as he learnt of more species these diagnostic names had to be enhanced and could sometimes end up being a dozen words long and totally impractical as a NAME. Linnaeus invented the accompanying "trivial name" for everyday use, and thus the sign reasserted its independence from the signified.

The diagnostic name, however, remains culturally important as it determined the typical form of plant descriptions that you will see in all subsequent Floras, field guides, and horticultural manuals: an enumeration of the plant's features that usually contains no verbs. The plant therefore ceased to be conceived merely as an instrument in our service but not by conceiving its own agency; instead, it became an object of contemplation.

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At 11:18 am, Blogger Yves said...

I'm very glad to have found your site, Michael, after googling "carline thistle". I like the combination of botany, poetry & other elements in your blog and will watch it with interest.


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