Greek and Latin Scientific names

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-07-23

My recent comment on names which mean the same thing in different languages reminded me of something slightly different: generic and specific names that mean the same thing; one in Greek, the other in Latin.

The Common Raven Corvus corax, revered in ancient cultures around the world, bears its own name in both languages, Corvus being the Latin name for the Raven, and corax likewise the name in Greek (even the name "Raven" comes from an ancient Proto-Germanic name applied to the bird). The related Carrion Crow Corvus corone and Hooded Crow Corvus cornix both take their specific names from Greek words for "crow". All three names were assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.

Linnaeus also named the Hoopoe Upupa epops, apparently from the bird's onomatopoeic Latin and Greek names respectively.

The Common Scoter Melanitta nigra, a sea-duck, probably gets its name from the Greek "melas" (for "black") and "netta" (for "duck"), and the Latin for "black".

The Ruff Philomachus pugnax is a strongly dimorphic wader whose common name refers to the collar of feathers that the male develops in breeding plumage (the female is known as the Reeve). "Philomachus" is from the Greek for "love" (philo) and "battle" (mache, reflected in "macho"), and "pugnax" is the Latin word for "combative", and is the root of "pugnacious".

The most interesting name of this kind belongs to the Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope. Anas is the Latin word for duck, and penelope is generally considered to be the corresponding Greek word, but its origin and derivation are somewhat unclear.

Penelope was the name of Odysseus's faithful wife in Homer's Odyssey, who weaves a shroud (for Laertes, Odysseus's father) by day—refusing to wed any of her suitors until it is completed—and unravels it by night. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope.

The origin of the name is unclear, as is its relation to "penelops", an old name (whose meaning is unclear) for some now-unknown kind of bird. Penelope is usually understood to mean "weaver" (from "pene" for web and "ops" for eye), but whether this name was assigned to the Wigeon based on that derivation, or an expected connection to penelops, is unclear. It is possible that the two words are unrelated.

(These three species were all originally described by Linnaeus, but he apparently did not place them in the genera they now occupy.)

Update (2009-07-30): I happened to see a photograph of a Fire-Capped Tit today, and realised that its scientific name, Cephalopyrus flammiceps, deserves to be included in this post. Its meaning is obviously "Firehead firehead", but the exact etymology is a bit unclear. I think both names may actually be a mixture of Greek and Latin!

A digression

That Linnaeus figures in some capacity in each of the examples in this post reminded me of my visit to the beautiful old Uppsala Domkyrka (or cathedral) in 2001. At the time, I knew who Linnaeus was, but I did not know that he was Swedish, or that "Linnaeus" was a Latin-ised derivation from Linnagård ("Linden farm" in Swedish). I had no idea that he was from Uppsala, and that he was actually buried in the Domkyrka.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who lived in Uppsala and knew all this (and was a little surprised that I did not), and he took me to look at His grave.

Thanks entirely to my friend, we also visited the Uppsala university museum, where I saw (among a whole building full of other fascinating things) a thermometer made by Anders Celsius, with the scale placing the freezing point of water at 100° and the boiling point at 0°. As it happens, it was Linnaeus who reversed this and gave us the scale we use today.