Overloaded generic names

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

2009-07-22

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 many photos of the species, including Sujan's photo.

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 their similarity.

Other examples

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, however.

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 amusing couple.

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.