Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Latin as it is spoke

I am always delighted by the scene in 'Life of Brian' when the centurion (John Cleese) catches Brian (Graham Chapman) daubing Latin graffiti on a wall. Brian is made to correct the grammatical errors and then re-write it fifty (or is it a hundred?) times.

As far as I can recall Latin was not an option when I attended school - a Technical High School - so for me it is almost as obscure as cuneiform inscriptions on an ancient Sumerian monument. Perhaps it is because I never faced the horror of formally learning Latin it has always intrigued me, as I am constantly required to use biological names. Although lots of 'dog Latin' is involved, I enjoy translating plant or animal names to try and make sense of them.

                     Sedem mari, sedem go,
                     Fortibuses in ero;
                     Gnoses mari, deis trux
                     Fulla causen giesen dux.

Or, more correctly...   

                    See them Marie, see them go,
                    Forty buses in a row;
                    No says Marie, they is trucks
                    Full of cows and geese and ducks.

And that's about the extent of my Latin cognition.

Biologists face a genuine problem with Latin names. It is becoming really tricky to come up with a new name for a genus (although the specific name is more or less problem-free). With new species being described every day it is difficult to avoid employing a name already in use. A famous example concerns the Chimpanzee. In 1812 the naturalist Geoffroy named it Troglodytes niger, but it was pointed out to him that the name Troglodytes had already been used for the Common Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). It is now Pan troglodytes.

Some names are a puzzle. A very common spider, often found around our window frames and in similar places, was given the name Zygiella x-notata (pronounced chi-notata of course) by Carl Alexander Clerck.  Mike Roberts, in his monumental work The Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland,  states: 'The specific name was used by Clerck because "a letter X is seen on the upper or forepart of the abdomen'. I have never seen it". No Mike, neither have I. One can only conclude that when naming the species Clerck was looking at an aberrant specimen.

Various ways have been found to circumvent this problem of names, with biologists having to use considerable imagination. For instance Lobivia (a cactus) is an anagram of Bolivia, where it was first located. A grotesque-looking trilobite was named Forteyops (Fortey-face) as a jokey tribute to Richard Fortey, a world authority on these extinct creatures. There are other treasures: Abra cadabra - a clam; Upupa epops - the hoopoe; Pieza kake and Pieza resistans - both flies; Kamara lens - a tiny water creature; Clitoria - a plant in the pea family with flowers suggestive of...  Then, if I have the space, there is the tiny crustacean Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis  (a name later invalidated by the ICZN - the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature). These are all genuine names, unlike Edward Lear's Nasticreecha krorlupya, a name that has always pleased me greatly!

The biologist who came up with Zyzzyxdonta - a slug - clearly wanted to be the last in any biological dictionary (although it precedes the sponge genus Zyzzyzus); it has features quite different from the related Aaadonta (both are endemic to Palau). Why couldn't these people have come up with names like Ia io,  a species of Chinese bat?

What is one to make of all these peculiarities? They at least show that many biologists have a sense of humour. But I am tempted to say:

      Ba humbugi (a species of clam from Fiji) to the whole business!


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