Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names


In 1991 James Jobling produced a work entitled A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, establishing himself as the leading British author on the use, meaning and coinage of scientific nomenclature. This new volume brings the material up to date and presents his earlier efforts in a fresh, attractive and user-friendly format.


Scientific names are clearly of huge importance; they provide us with a lingua franca, permitting communication regardless of culture. We have probably all been there at some time. You meet some local birders or fellow visitors and nobody speaks the others’ language. There follows a rather weird exchange involving a lot of hand signals, some pointing and shouting and much animated reference to field guides.


Without those few common words in a long-dead language it would be very difficult. But the books’ shared fraction of scientific Latin makes for a perfectly intelligent exchange of information. Those common names are the Esperanto binding together all birdwatchers.


Jobling picks apart the entire system, offering us translations of 20,000 names. He covers both extant words from a working taxonomy – that of his near neighbour Edward Dickinson, editor of the Howard and Moore Checklist of the Birds of the World – but also archaic names, which were coined and discarded as our understanding of speciation and bird relationships advanced.


That vocabulary of 20,000 words is in many ways a complex map of a whole science, each word serving as a way marker as we have groped forward over 2,500 years of ornithological study. Often we are familiar with a word, but without ever stopping to reflect on the cultural history, personality or simple whimsy hidden within it. Take for example, the generic name of House Martin. It turns out that Delichon is an anagram of the Greek name for its relative the Swallow, Chelidon. That rather strange-sounding word harterti derives from Ernst Hartert, the great German ornithologist.


It is surely Jobling’s concern to share the rich history and wider cultural references embedded in bird names that partly motivated him to write the book. Yet these elements have no place in his introductory rationale. His opening outline focuses exclusively on the text’s working structure. It is this explanatory preface which I found most difficult.


The trick of a really successful dictionary is the capacity of its editor to move between the supreme mastery of the material that he or she has achieved and the assumed ignorance of its readers. If you cannot imagine what your audience doesn’t know, then you cannot simplify the material sufficiently to give them proper access.


Jobling, a Classics scholar of immense erudition, clearly could not make that imaginative leap. His glossaries and explicatory passages are in parts complex, dense and baffling. Here, for example, is the author trying to tell us what is a patronym: “In ornithology a modified substantive English name honouring a person, a vernacular equivalent of the eponym, although not necessarily the same person dedicated in the eponym or even reflected in the binomen.”


This said, one can often either intuit or understand perfectly reasonably most of the thousands of dictionary definitions. It is this vast translation work for which the author should be congratulated hugely. However, a longer, more carefully considered and more simply written explanation of his methods would have allowed us to understand the often complex processes that inform the creation of scientific names.

Tech spec

Helm Dictionary of Scientific Names by James Jobling (Christopher Helm, London, 2009).

400 pages.

ISBN 9781408125014. Hbk, £40.

First published in Birdwatch 213:47 (March 2010)