Life

Purple Hays and Glossy Gibbons

The debate on naming continues. What makes a name scientific?

What’s in a name? It’s something Nigel Chaffey has been asking recently, whether it’s scientific names or honourific names. Beyond labelling exactly what it is that you’re talking about do names matter? Our readers have been commenting, and they argue that there’s more to a name than a label.

This post starts back in December, when we posted on Facebook a link to a story about a new plant.

Discover a new species, and you could name a plant too. Any suggestions?

Posted by Annals of Botany: Plant Science Research on Saturday, December 17, 2016

The post got a comment which you can read on the page if you click in the right place. To save you the time, I’ve reproduced it below.

Dean Wm Taylor Perhaps I will be proven wrong, and the choice of this basionym be sufficient to will inspire the citizens of Baja California to rally for conservation of this endangered plant (overcoming the massive difficulties under Mexican law as compared to that in Alta California)?

In my opinion, epithets are to be carefully chosen for utility: identification, comparison or be expositional of some pattern. This name might as well be D. ‘perry-como’ or Dudleya mahlerii along the same vein was the chosen name being published (being flippant, why did I not choose ‘elevator-musicalis’ for being on hold on some phone call when I walked up to snow-wreath)

It’s just that I am concerned that the choice of this name might be taken by some as just another Anglo form of colonizing put-down (our botanists invade, pick off your cool narrow endemics, retreat to our privilege of our passports, with our rock and roll…and you get ??)

I think commemorative names are a form of honarium: granted after long tenure of contribution. Can I name something after my cat?

At one time there was a practice of naming particularly ‘ugly’ or grotesque taxa after one’s rivals (i.e. leaches). On more than one occasion, a ‘phantom’ names were published in order to preclude later, valid commemoration in a large group.

I am not in favor of sale of commemorative names, as is often practiced in birds and amphibia (although I would make an exception if someone would cough up say $20million to build a new state of the art herbarium at RSA for example)

I think as botanists, we ought to make our opinions known. The Code does not tell us how to choose names. The Code allows to replace a name, but International Congress action is needed. For all practical purposes, once a basionym is published that is it.

I think Dean Taylor makes a good point that people who name species are working from a position of privilege. In the past Botany has been a tool of Empire, and plenty of species have been named in Latin or pseudo-Latin to honour wealthy patrons back home instead of reflecting the local culture. The counter argument is these latin binomials are scientific names, and that the locals can still use their common name for the plant. Which is fine as long as the name isn’t excessively glossy. One name that is excessively glossy, depending on where you stand, is the Glossy Buckthorn.

Annals of Botany recently published a paper Transatlantic invasion routes and adaptive potential in North American populations of the invasive glossy buckthorn, Frangula alnus. We published the snapshot. This drew a complaint because the glossy buckthorn isn’t a glossy buckthorn, it’s an alder buckthorn.

As complaints go, this one threw me a bit. As far as I knew the whole point of naming it Frangula alnus was to allow multiple common names. While I was on the motorway this conversation happened.

A complaint about English names being colonised caught me by surprise. Where I live the problem is the opposite, but if you’re going to adopt rules then I can see they need to apply to all. On the other hand from a practical point of view glossy buckthorn is the name used by lots of people in the context of invasive species. If the purpose of blogging here is to enable people to find relevant papers, then we should be using the names they’re likely to use. So, in this case, we have Glossy buckthorn, the name used in the American context, Frangula alnus the scientific/latin name and Alder buckthorn a name given by a scientific body.

Shortly after the Hendrix plant came the Skywalker gibbon. At face value, another example of colonialism pushed by a power-crazed mouse, but there’s more to the story than that. The “Skywalker” hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing) has a bit of thought in the name. This can be seen in the section below butchered (because I can’t work out how to include pinyin properly here yet) from the original paper:

Tianxing constitutes the pinyin (standard mainland Chinese phonetic alphabet) transliteration of 天兴, meaning heaven’s movement or skywalker (xing, movement, can act as either a noun or a verb), a name referring to the unique locomotory mode of gibbons and derived from the text of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese work of divination: (“As heaven’s movement is ever vigorous, so must the scholarly gentleman ceaselessly strive for self-improvement”).

In English people are going to know what Skywalker means, but the name respects Chinese traditions too. It’s also accurate for the species. It shows it is possible to have meaningful commemorative names.

My conclusion to Nigel’s puzzle on whether binomials are latin or scientific is that it’s like asking if an apple is green or a fruit. What would make life easier is if the name is done right. As Jeremy Cherfas has said, Binomials make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

About the author

Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?