Thursday, November 08, 2007

Things about naming that I didn't know

I did know that the rules for zoological nomenclature were different from the rules for botanical nomenclature. For example, an animal can have the same specific name as its generic name, e.g. Chloris chloris, the greenfinch. In botanical nomenclature this is called a tautonym and is outlawed.

So far, this evidence of the historic inability of the zoological and botanical communities to act in concert did not seem all that significant. What I hadn't grasped before was that they have independently used many of the same generic names: thus Oenanthe oenanthe is the common (Northern) wheatear, and Oenanthe crocata is hemlock water dropwort; Prunella vulgaris is self-heal, Prunella modularis, dunnock. There are 5,000 such ambiguous generic names! I haven't yet found out why this situation was allowed to develop but in both the examples I've given the botanical generic names were assigned by Linnaeus and the ornithological generic names by Vieillot in 1816. The practice is now discouraged.

Perpetuating this mutual indifference, I have never been - not truly, truly - interested in birds, though perhaps this might change following reading Max Nicholson's "Birds and Men" 1951), an early New Naturalist that I luckily found in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago - this is a book that makes you feel curious about what's going on around you.

For example, I have never knowingly seen a wheatear. The name "wheatear" is a genteel re-styling of the country name "white arse" (a handy identification feature).

Oenanthe oenanthe, photo by James Packer, one of many excellent pics on his Somerset birding site

I can't remember how this bit of internet surfing began, but it also took in a fascinating essay by Enid Bloch about the death of Socrates and the toxicology of hemlock, in contrast to other highly toxic umbelliferous plants such as hemlock water dropwort, cowbane, etc. Don't miss it!


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