Friday - - Mind Games -

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:

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