What's in a (Latin) Name?

The special genius behind the species and genus


The greater roadrunner is officially classified as Geococcyx californianus. The lesser roadrunner is Geococcyx velox. And the more familiar cartoon Road Runner (beep beep) has been designated on different occasions as Accelerati incredibilus, Velocitus tremenjus, Birdibus zippibus, Speedipus rex and Morselus babyfatious tastius. Consistently unsuccessful in his attempts to catch Fastius tasty-us is Wile E. Coyote, himself variously classified as a representative of the species Carnivorous slobbius, Eatius birdius, Overconfidentii vulgaris, Poor schinookius or Caninus nervous rex. (Real coyotes are Canis latrans, which sounds like a bathroom used by Roman legionnaires.)

So who do we, and the Looney Tunes folks, have to thank for setting the ground rules that led to all this highfalutin Latinate humor? None other than Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who was so in love with naming things that he gave himself a few more: Carl Linné, Carl von Linné, Carolus Linnaeus and Caroli Linnaei, the name by which he proposed the standard genus-species system of taxonomic binomial nomenclature still used to keep track of all that life out there. The year 2007 was the tricentennial of Linnaeus’s birth, which shows that some people’s contributions give them a postmortem vita that’s not at all brevis.

American journalist and wag H. L. Mencken paid unwitting tribute to Linnaeus’s classification scheme when he dubbed a large percentage of the U.S. population Boobus americanus. (Don’t worry, he meant the other guys, not you.) Mencken described the perpetually bamboozled B. americanus as “a bird that knows no closed season,” which coincidentally describes the Road Runner, also known as Disappearialis quickius. Mencken, by the way, covered the famous Scopes trial, in which some Homo sapiens treated the notion that they were related to Gorilla gorilla and Pan troglodytes like it was a Yersinia pestis infection.

Among Mencken’s many pithy comments about H. sapiens is,  “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.” And in fact, mixing up any of the numerous species of the genus Rosa with Brassica oleracea (Capitata Group) is even nuttier (Bertholletia excelsa) in Latin. Preventing mix-ups is one reason why Linnaeus’s system comes in so handy: French president Nicolas Sarkozy might call it a moineau, Spain’s King Juan Carlos might call it a gorrión, and Vice President Dick Cheney might (or might not) call out “fire in the hole” before trying to blow it out of the sky, but the bird in question would be recognizable to all their science advisers as Passer domesticus. Which is also known in English as the house sparrow. And because common species names, even within a single language, lack the authority of the official Linnaean designations, the house sparrow is also known in English as the English sparrow. Help, is there a taxonomist in the house?

Linnaeus’s twin great works were the 1753 Species Planterum, in which he classified all the known species of vegetation, and the 1758 Systema Naturae, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year and which was the first major effort at organizing the animal world. The Wikipedia entry on Linnaeus notes that because of his habit of naming all the living things he encountered, “he thought of himself as a second Adam.” The cover of Systema Naturae shows a man, presumably Linnaeus, tossing Latin titles to “new creatures as they are created in the Garden of Eden.” No shrinking member of the genus Viola was he.

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