Navigate / search

Why we fear scientific names

One of the most extraordinary things I learned in graduate school was how to pronounce Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. All of us taking a class titled “The Biology and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout” were told we would need to say and spell the name of this delightful fish as part of our oral exams.

I remember a cold November day when we took a field trip to Kalaloch Beach at spawning time. We sat in a school bus—a diverse group that otherwise appeared adult—chanting the letters in singsong unison. We sounded like a bunch of pre-schoolers repeating “The Alphabet Song” over and over.

Don’t get me wrong: we were having fun in sort of a stupid way and every one of us ended up passing the test—at least that portion. To this day, whenever I write the name, I group the letters in a certain rhythm, just as I learned them.

Common vs scientific names

Most of us don’t have a need for scientific names on a daily basis. We learn to recognize things like “horse” at an early age, and don’t need to say Equus ferus caballus to be understood. Likewise, Chinook salmon works fine in place of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha and it’s a whole lot easier to say.

But the familiar system of scientific and common names breaks down when it comes to things that are small and hard to recognize. Big things always have common names: moose, cow, whale, and elephant. Even not-so-big things have common names: buttercups, earthworms, and bumble bees. But very tiny things? Not so much. I don’t know a common name for Perdita rhois or Ceratina acantha, both of which are tiny bees.

Common names are the names given to organisms by “common” people—that is, they are the names given to things by folks who observe them in their everyday lives. Common names are often descriptive and regional, and they add color and nuance to our language. Echium vulgare may be called viper’s bugloss or blueweed, depending where you live. Species of Syrphidae may be called hover flies in the north or steady bees in the south.

Small things get ignored

But when those same people see what they think is a tiny splinter on a flower, they don’t give it a name. Even when that “splinter” suddenly flies off, they still don’t name it—after all they could barely see it. Maybe the wind took it away, or gravity. Since they couldn’t identify it, it soon disappears from their consciousness. As a result, we have an enormous collection of living things without common names.

This by itself is not so bad because common names can be confusing. After all, a steady bee is not a bee at all, but a fly. When we want to communicate exactly what we mean, we rely on the scientific name to get us there.

We don’t recognize things without common names

Collectively, however, we seem to have a fear of scientific names. I notice this over and over when I’m speaking to groups about native and wild bees. People just learning about these creatures want a name they can remember and relate to, but I can’t deliver on that because many simply have no common names. We can group them into like kinds and say, for example, that something is a ground bee. But since about 70% of the 20,000 named species of bee live in the ground, it’s not very helpful.

I believe this is the single biggest reason that people don’t recognize more species of bee: if it doesn’t have a common name, it must not exist or it must not be important. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you are truly interested in bees, you simply have to learn a few scientific names. It’s not hard, and once you learn them, they no longer sound “scientific.” We all know Apis mellifera, right? After the first few times you use it, it no longer sounds strange or difficult—it just sounds, well, normal.

Fear of saying it wrong

I think we hesitate to use scientific names because we fear we won’t pronounce them correctly. We are afraid of ridicule or afraid of looking ignorant. But think about it—who’s going to laugh at you? No one else can say them either!

Since I frequently speak to groups about native bees, I have gone to great lengths to learn “proper” pronunciations. I don’t want to stand in front of a group and trip all over the names, so I have used books, recordings of other speakers, and I have even written to bee specialists to ask about those I couldn’t find elsewhere. And then I say them aloud over and over, until they feel natural—Ceolyoxis should come just as easy as Apis—and after a while, it does.

But here is an important point: Most scientific names are based on Latin, a language that is no longer spoken. As such, there is no clearly right or wrong way to say the words. It turns out that some pronunciations are more common than others, but it’s nearly impossible to say one is correct and one is not.

A mite by any other name

As an example, I learned to pronounce Varroa from someone who put the accent on the first syllable. Most people, it turns out, put the accent on the second syllable. I tried to switch to the more popular pronunciation, but sometimes in conversation or in a presentation I would inadvertently switch back to my original way of saying it.

Recently, however, I learned that Merriam-Webster prefers the pronunciation I used from the beginning, so now I’m trying to switch back again. In any case, I’ve never had an audience laugh, giggle, ridicule, or question what the heck I was talking about. They get the message: Varroa is bad news no matter how you say it.

Happy New Year

So try it. Learn a new scientific name. Say it out loud. Spell it. Say it again. Make it fun. Try it out on your friends and family. Repeat it until the dog (Canis lupus familiaris) hides under the bed.

And by the way, have a happy, safe, and prosperous 2016. Your bees await.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Bumble-on-Dicentra formosa
Bombus sp. on Dicentra formosa. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Greengage
Reply

Good article keep up the good work I always enjoy reading although I do not comment often. Thanks and All the best for 2016. Bhliain nua sásta (Happy New Year in Irish)

christina
Reply

I loved scientific names until I found out they kept changing them! hard enough to remember the first time but then when they get changed I throw up my hands in despair! So much for science!

Militoy
Reply

Enjoyed this article (as usual, when reading anything posted by you on your blog!) – but especially so when you you get into scientific names. As an engineer involved primarily in the physical sciences, most of my knowledge of biological science has been gleaned from reading. The pronunciation of scientific names has always been a sticky subject for me. On the few occasions when I have had the opportunity to attend field biology classes, I have been surprised to hear that my perceived pronunciations have usually been wrong.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty, Once again, cheers for accuracy! I’ve been accused of liking scientific names just because it allows me to use words like “Agastache rugosa” in a sentence. Try it, it’s fun.

Nizhonigo nanaanaahai dooleel ! (Happy New Year, in Navajo)
Keep it going!
Nan
Northern Kentucky

dgrc
Reply

Hey Rusty,

To help us better appreciate the value of “scientific” names, how about a quick overview of how the naming conventions work? Why, for example, is honey bee Apis mellifera but dog is Canus lupus familiaris? There is, after all, a lot of logic and a bit of poetry in these names.

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

dgrc,

I put it on my list.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.