Every animal has a scientific name, and we’re taught that each name consists of two parts, the first being the genus, and the second, the species of the animal. By convention the genus word begins with a capital letter, and the species word does not, and the entire name is written in italics. For more precision a third part, the subspecies, is sometimes added (for instance, the domestic dog is Canis lupus familiaris; just Canis lupus refers to the grey wolf, of which the dog is a subspecies).
For word lovers these scientific animal names have certain points of interest. For instance, there are dozens of them that are tautological names, that is, with identical generic and specific names (most schoolchildren are familiar with Gorilla gorilla or Bison bison). Again by convention, nomenclature in botany forbids such tautological names being given to plants.
The full list of animal names is fairly large, and of much etymological interest. Some examples:
Troglodytes troglodytes: Readers will recognise the word as just one of many of Captain Haddock’s curses uttered while under the influence in the Tintin comics. The word means ‘cave dweller’, but surprisingly isn’t the name of some primitive humanoid, but that of the Eurasian wren, so called because of its habit of disappearing into cavities or crevices whilst hunting insects or to roost.
Phoenicurus phoenicurus: “No! There’s no real bird called the phoenix!” is what you’re probably thinking. You’re right too – this is the scientific name for a bird called the Common Redstart, and the only link it has to fire is its red tail (‘start’ is an old word for ‘tail’, by the way).
Famishus famishus: Sound familiar? Only if you’re a serious fan of Warner Bros cartoons. This is an imaginary name that cropped up once to refer to Wile E Coyote, that indefatigable Road Runner chaser.
For certain creatures, the generic name and specific name differ but mean the same thing, usually in two different languages such as Latin and Greek. Two well-known examples are Xiphias gladius (‘s word’ in Greek and Latin) for the swordfish, and Ursus arctos (‘bear’ in Latin and Greek).
A parting trivia shot: two wellknown creatures, one extinct and one still here, have two-word names that are the same as their respective scientific ones. Which are they?
constrictor. Boa and rex Tyrannosaurus Answer: