Naming of the Shrew: a Curious History of Latin Names

‘Latin names’ or – more accurately – scientific names are often key to the hobby of birding when discussing what we have seen and its relation to other birds. In ornithology, they are essential to describing the objects of study to genus, species or subspecies level. However, it can’t have escaped many people’s notice that they sometimes have an intriguing resonance, with familiar words, surnames and sometimes even humorous inclusions popping up in each binomial or trinomial.

Clearly, the two-part scientific name has had a complex history since being formally introduced in the 10th edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae in 1758. The ensuing quest to categorise animals and plants is deftly told in The Naming of the Shrew. This is particularly pleasing as many of the textbooks explaining the rules of nomenclature are dry and unwieldy, and this enjoyable book also acts as a helpful summary of the basics.

Beginning with his own awakening childhood awareness of the fascinating linguistic turns of scientific names, the author quickly explains the origins, purpose and usefulness of such nomenclature, filling the tale with anecdote from the off. Common Shrew Sorex araneus got its arachnid last name from the legend that its bite was as nasty as a spider’s. There are large number of flowers named after Greek gods, and invertebrates named after rock bands and musicians, as well as Star Wars and Tolkein characters (thus maintaining the image of the geeky biologist). Many names honour the scientist who discovered the species, or equally as often a mentor or benefactor.

Every name has a story and a history, and in between relating all these Wright finds time to explain what a species is in simple terms and describes the rules and terms from type specimen to ‘hoaxotype’. Wheatears Oenanthe have the same generic name as a group of flowering plants, and the reasons for this are explained, along with accentors and self-heals, a genus of plants, which share the generic name Prunella.

The principles of priority are laid out clearly and concisely. But it is the tales to be told that will keep you reading, and in this context Wright has kept the standard up throughout.

The usage of the binomial is still evolving. The recent naming of a South American monkey after an online gaming company’s website after it shelled out $650,000 could be a more pernicious sign of the future, but is it really any worse than the honouring of rich sponsors in the 19th century?