The Slender-Billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris
has always felt somewhat mystical while flipping through the Babblers in
any field guide. I've never seen one, but the photographs posted to the
delhibirdpix list by Sujan Chatterjee in May 2008 and Ramki Sreenivasan
a year later, both taken in Arunachal Pradesh, have stayed in my memory.
Unfortunately, I can find only one of these photographs on Google Groups
now, and I can't figure out any sane way to link to that post here. But
Google Images finds
of the species, including
Anyway, Xiphirhynchus superciliaris was somewhere at the back of
my mind when I recently encountered a casual reference to the unrelated
South American genus of Woodcreepers: Xiphorhynchus. These are
essentially the same word, derived from the Greek xiph- (for "sword")
and -rhynchus ("snout" or "nose", meaning beak)!
The use of generic names that are so similar to existing names is one of
a (long) list of things that scientific nomenclatural bodies frown upon.
For example, the existence of Pipile (a proper Latin name used by
Viellot in 1816) and Pipilo (a "barbarous word of South American
origin", used by Bonaparte forty years later) has long been considered
unfortunate. One can only guess what they might have thought of names
which even meant the same thing.
The name Xiphirhynchus was assigned by Blyth in 1842, presumably
in complete ignorance of Swainson's use of Xiphorhynchus half a
world away and two decades earlier; and both names must have established
themselves in their respective hemispheres before anyone could object to
Having found one such delightful aberration, I couldn't help wonder if
there were others. I am fond of throwing programming resources at every
problem, so I wrote a wasteful and slow Perl script to sort a list of
generic names and find pairs of names with a Levenshtein edit distance
of one between them (in other words, names that could be changed into
each other by changing, removing, or adding a single character).
As I expected, most of the names the program found were merely amusing
coincidences, like Gallus and Rallus, Sitta and
Pitta, Larus and Parus, Macropygia and
Micropygia. A few of its discoveries were more interesting,
Myiophobus is derived from the Greek for "fly" (the insect) and,
apparently, from the word for "fear"—the genus comprises a few South
American Flycatchers, and belongs to the family Tyrannidae. On
the other side of the world, the Whistling-Thrushes are named
Myiophonus, but the connection between flies and sounds (Greek
phono-) eludes me. But speaking of sounds, Tachyphonus
(quick-voiced) and Trachyphonus (rough-voiced) make another
Phoenicurus ("red tail" in Greek; the name given to Redstarts)
appears to mean the same thing as Pyrrhura (though they may name
different shades of red). To complete an improbable mixed-doubles pair,
the very similar-looking Pyrrhula and Phoeniculus may also
share a meaning (although I don't know what the -ula suffix refers to).
Eudromia, the name given by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1832 to the
Tinamous of South America is derived from the Greek words for "good" and
"run", a reference to the birds' preference for escaping from predators
on foot. It must surely be the same word as Eudromias, the genus
of the Eurasian Dotterel (the origins of which are unclear to me; but
the species is now named Charadrius morinellus).
Of course, the really interesting question is whether there are names
which mean the same thing—perhaps in different languages—even
if they don't look similar, but that's a question no program
of mine can answer.