Plant Cuttings

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!

About the author

Nigel Chaffey

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.