The Web of Life (28) Nomenclature Overload

Nomenclature Overload

What’s in a name? ~ English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

The goal of biological classification has been ubiquitous uniqueness of name by convention. The failure of botanical and zoological societies to agree built a tower of taxonomic babble.

Some 5,000 duplicate ambiguities are known. The genus of golden peas and night monkeys is Anura. (The monkeys don’t eat those peas or vice versa.) The water dropwort, a poisonous swamp plant, and the wheatear, in the flycatcher bird family, are both of the genus Oenanthe.

Proboscidea is the genus of flowering unicorn plant and the order of elephants. They both at least have a long beezer.

Life forms are scientifically termed by genus and species. Genus is the generic name; always capitalized. Species is specific, but what exactly that means remains controversial (Linnaeus’ curse). In short, despite scientific bestowal, common names are preferable, if only to avoid mouthfuls of ersatz Latin gibber. In the unlikely event that the naming mess is ever sorted out, scientific names will change, but the commoners will remain constant.

Even then, the redundancy and confusion offered in common names are tremendous. One typical abhorrent tendency is to name plants after animals, thus requiring separate identification as flora, not fauna (e.g., spider plant).


The assumption that species are fixed entities underpins biology. Yet for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of organisms) is remarkably anarchic. ~ Australian zoologist Stephen Garnett & Australian ornithologist Les Christidis