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What’s in a (scientific) name?

Nomenclature is all around us. We give names to our: children for ease of identification, pets to make them feel like part of our family, and even signature dance moves to bust out on a Saturday night. These labels we have for people, other organisms, objects and ideas help us identify and differentiate them from each other. While some names are bursting with meaning, others are downright silly.

Why are scientific names important?

If you’ve ever struggled to communicate with someone who speaks a different language than you do, the answer is quite simple: there are hundreds of languages in the world, and each have different common names for each organism. Imagine the nightmare of trying to figure out what a fellow scientist was talking about or locate a publication of an organism that has a different name in every language! The practice of giving species scientific names began in the mid-1700s when Swedish botanist and physician Carolus Linneaus created a naming system for organism species. The system involves a 2-part Latin name—the first part describes the genus, or general collective term for a species, and the second part describes the more definitive species name. For example, Lepus arcticpus is the scientific name for the arctic hare, while Lepus europaeus is the name for its close relative, the hare.

How do scientists name different organisms?

Even with a clear-cut naming system, species names are chosen with care. Organisms are usually given their scientific Latin names based on these criteria:

  1. It might reference a particular location where an organism was found (can you guess where the Albertosaurus was discovered?)
  2. It may reference a unique body part or behaviour (unicorn = “one horn”)
  3. It sometimes even honours a person who has some connection to the organism (Aleiodes shakier is a wasp named after the singer and dancer Shakira because its larvae cause its host to wiggle like its hips don’t lie. If you thought that fact was fun, check out this list of organisms named after famous people).

Who comes up with those silly names for groups of animals?

You may have encountered strange names for groups of people, animals, objects or concepts such as a “gaggle of geese” or a “murder of crows.” These strange names are known as collective nouns, and these words have a unique history separate from traditional scientific nomenclature.

Collective nouns originated from a 15th century English hunting tradition, in which aristocrats hunting for sport would give names to groups of prey. These “terms of venery” (from the French word “vener,” meaning “to hunt”) were used to distinguish the collective nouns used by rich aristocrats from those used by peasants. Many of the original collective nouns have become outdated and are no longer used; other collective nouns have evolved with the dialects and pronunciation styles of particular geographical areas. For example, a group of hogs may be known as a “parcel” in one area, and a “passel” in another.

Collective nouns can be wacky, wonderful, or oddly specific. For example, "herd" can be used to describe a group of wild horses and domestic cattle, but not a group of domestic horses. A "drift" of swans can only refer to a group of swans on water and a "stick" of bombs can only be used if the bombs are air-dropped. Collective nouns are a charming aspect of the English language that make it unique, as very few exist in other languages.

How does this have any relevance to my everyday life?

If you take the time to learn some of the etymology of species names, it can tell you a lot about the organism. While collective nouns are more of a whimsical linguistic quirk rather than a scientific classification system, these fun words can evoke an interest into the origin and history of these fascinating and sometimes ridiculous terms. In addition to ease of identification, scientific names can help you communicate information about your favourite organisms to friends, colleagues or fellow scientists from around the world.

Speaking of favourite organisms, did you know that a group of Giraffa camelopardalis is called a tower?