The lingua franca of taxonomy

Image: Robert Ricker, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Image: Robert Ricker, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Encouraging stu­dents to face their fears and take up the chal­lenge of con­front­ing sci­entific names (no longer should we call them Latin names because, although Latinized, the names them­selves come from a wide vari­ety of lan­guages) is not easy – as any­one who has struggled with this task will know. OK, then, what if all organ­isms had com­mon names? Would that help to reverse the aver­sion revealed by recal­cit­rant wan­nabe bio­lo­gists, and provide a more pal­at­able entrée to the world of tax­onomy and clas­si­fic­a­tion? This appears to be part of the premise behind Francis Bunker and co-authors’ 2010 pub­lic­a­tion, Seasearch Guide to Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland (UK Marine Conservation Society), which includes com­mon (admit­tedly, English in this con­text) names for approx­im­ately 200 spe­cies. Many of those sea­weeds would not have had com­mon names pre­vi­ously – though I notice that even these worthy authors gave up with some of the more prob­lem­atic Ulva spe­cies! Knowing some of the authors myself, I can only ima­gine the fun they must have had late into the even­ing – maybe over a glass or two of ‘liquid inspir­a­tion’ – con­jur­ing up new names for this under-studied group of pho­toauto­trophs. Will this make a dif­fer­ence? Will it inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of bio­lo­gists to take up the chal­lenge of study­ing sea­weeds – or other planty groups – because they have com­mon names to help them? I’m hope­ful, but not overly con­fid­ent. After all, the myco­lo­gists tried a sim­ilar exer­cise in 2003 with their Recommended English Names for Fungi in the UK. Given the piti­ful state of fungal tax­onomy iden­ti­fied by the UK’s House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee’s Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-up report of 2008, it doesn’t appear to have been a resound­ing suc­cess. But these for­ays are surely moves in the right dir­ec­tion. And who can res­ist the allure of such names as Under Tongue Weed, Erect Clublet or Fine-Veined Crinkle Weed? But, though per­haps unin­ten­tion­ally, with other names such as Bonnemaison’s Hook Weed, Bunny-Eared Bead Weed and Dudresnay’s Whorled Weed, maybe even the most Latin-averse of stu­dents might actu­ally prefer to seek the solace of the shorter sci­entific bino­mial. Now, that would be a turn up for the book!

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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