What's on a scientific name?

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Recently I discovered that there's a fish named after my mother, Marion Grey, who was an ichthyologist specializing in the taxonomy of deep-sea fishes: it's called Bathylagus greyae, a.k.a. Grey's deepsea smelt. While looking around the relevant website (Hans G. Hansen's Biographical Etymology of Marine Organisms), I noticed something oddish. The Latinized name greyae didn't surprise me much, because -ae is the genitive singular suffix of the Latin first declension, the major declension for feminine nouns in Latin. It's maybe a bit strange from a Latin perspective, because Latin nouns in this class have a nominative singular ending in -a, and like most English family names Grey ends in a consonant; and Latin third-declension nouns end in a consonant, so they could've provided a model for scientific names. Still, using the Latin first-declension ending for the possessive of a non-Latin woman's name seems like a reasonable decision, given the much greater productivity of the dominant noun class. No, it was the genitive formation of organism names honoring men that struck me as peculiar.

Because the genitive ending -ae is used in organism names honoring women, it's unsurprising that names honoring men take the suffix -i — the genitive singular ending of the second declension, to which the vast majority of masculine Latin nouns belong. But with masculine honorees there are two different formations. For instance, among the rather numerous marine organisms named after Joseph Paul Gaimard (a French naval surgeon and naturalist, 1793-1858) are Sycozoa gaimardi and Calcinus gaimardii. (Fans of Patrick O'Brian will understand why Gaimard caught my eye: remember Testudo aubreyii, which first appeared, I think, in HMS Surprise? Who knows, maybe Gaimard, like Stephen Maturin, was a spy as well as a naval surgeon and naturalist.) I found this suffix variation puzzling, so I asked two of my colleagues to explain — Ben Fortson, an Indo-Europeanist and Latinist, and Don Cameron, a Classicist and an expert on scientific names. Their responses were interesting. I asked Ben where the variation came from; I also asked him whether it was peculiar to men's names, because in the hundred or so entries I checked I didn't find any such variation in organisms named for women. Here's Ben's answer:

The -i- itself is not strictly any gender. Latin has masculine nouns in -ius, feminine ones in -ia, and neuter ones in -ium. For the Latinization of the family names of men, the masculine version is what is used. The problem is that there are two types of Roman names that roughly correspond to our family names: the gentilicium or nomen, or the name of the gens (roughly a clan), and the cognomen, which in origin was more of a nickname that stuck as a quasi-family name among certain members of the gens. Thus in Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Quintus was the given name, Horatius the gentilicium, and Flaccus the cognomen. This example is fairly typical in that the gentilicium ends in -ius and the cognomen in -us, without the -i-. The reason is that the gentilicia are often in origin patronymics, and -ius was a suffix of appurtenance that could be used, among other things, to form patronymics: thus a Varius was the son of Varus, and so forth.

So the reason all this is relevant is that let's say you want to Latinize a non-Latin family name. A non-Latin family name kind of corresponds to the gentilicium but also kind of corresponds to the cognomen; there's no exact equivalent either way. So one could defensibly tack on either -ius or -us to the non-Latin name to do the trick. Falling into the former camp are Latinized names like Gronovius (originally Gronov), Lipsius (< Lips), the various Swedish and Finnish Latinized names like Berzelius, Sibelius, and so forth. Falling into the latter camp are Copernicus (< Copernic), Muretus (< Muret), and others. Things get mighty complicated with Romance names, since some of these genuinely continue Latin words in -us or -ius and usually the correct one was used. This can extend to German names of ultimately Latin origin, e.g. Camerarius being the rendering of Camerer (chamberlain).

Mutatis mutandis the same issues obtain with women's last names. The names of Roman women were just feminizations of male names (Julia < Julius, Augusta < Augustus, Octavia < Octavius, Calpurnia < Calpurnius, etc., etc.; these we think of as given names, which is what they were in Imperial Roman times, but in origin they are the feminines of gentilicia and cognomina). There's no reason from the point of view of Latin why your mother's name couldn't have been rendered as [nominative Greyia instead of Greya (to form the genitive greyae in Bathylagus greyae).

Ben's account explains why the variation exists, but it doesn't completely clarify the practice of constructing scientific names. That turns out to be because the practice isn't all that clear. Here's Don Cameron's reply to my query about that:

You have hit on a long-standing kerfuffle among zoologists whether masculine names in the genitive ought to be -i or -ii. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (4th edition, Sec. 31.1.2) specifies one -i, but under 31.1.3, about preservation of the original spelling, both cuveri and cuverii are admissible. The trouble comes from different conventions of Latinizing modern proper names. Originally in Latin names like Marcus have genitive Marci and names like Livius have genitive Livii. So do you want to Latinize my name as Cameronus or Cameronius? You have a choice. Then the genitives would be Cameroni or Cameronii. Modern custom following the Code is to use one -i.

So that's why we get both gaimardi and gaimardii in names honoring M. Gaimard, and why we are likely to find the same variation with other popular honorees. Maybe it's just an accident of my small sample that I didn't find any examples of organism names with female honorees in -iae. The closest I came was Turbonilla angelinagagliniae (a small gastropod that is probably shorter than its scientific name), but that's named for Angelina Gaglini, so the genitive suffix is still just -ae. From what Ben and Don told me, there ought to be some Latinized feminine names with a genitive -iae too. And Don says that the Code even provides for genitive plural forms for plural honorees, in -orum (masculine) and -arum (feminine). All this makes me sorry I'm not close enough to biology or biologists to be able to look forward to becoming the species designation in the name of some insignificant organism: no critter will ever be known as sallythomasoniae.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    You could hope to have a historical change named after you ("Thomason's Law"), or perhaps a typological regularity ("Thomason's Generalization") — in fact, I can think of a couple of things that should qualify already for those forms of reference. But unfortunately such things don't get Latin versions.

  2. Lazar said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    One thing that bugs me no end is when people treat "Homo sapiens" as a plural, constructing the (appalling) new singular form "Homo sapien". One might say, based on Latin, that the plural should be "Homines sapientes", but that seems absurd (taxonomic names should remain invariate, right?), so that just leaves us with "Homo sapienses", which strikes me as silly. So would I be right in saying that species names should be treated as non counting nouns – so we could observe two members of Testudo aubreyii, but we couldn't observe two Testudo aubreyiis?

  3. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    There's Clerodendrum thomasoniae, the Bleeding Heart Vine, but I don't know who it's named after.

  4. Etienne said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    "Things get mighty complicated with Romance names, since some of these genuinely continue Latin words in -us or -ius and usually the correct one was used". By "correct" I take it the "etymologically correct" form is meant. And only "etymologically correct" in terms of the -i- element, not the remainder of the ending, as Romance names and words of Latin origin typically descend, historically, from the accusative form of the noun , without this factor influencing the Latinized form (for example, my own NOM DE PLUME, "Etienne", descends from Latin STEPHANUM and not STEPHANUS [itself borrowed into Latin from Greek, of course], but this would not have any impact as to the case-marking morphology attached to this name in scientific Latin [STEPHANI, not STEPHANII, even less a morphological horror such as STEPHANUMI]. Something to keep in mind should I make a comment on LANGUAGE HAT that would end in a species being named after me).

  5. James C. said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Perhaps if you joined the navy as a naval linguist, naturalist, and occasional spy then you might have the opportunity for some critter to carry your name into perpetuity.

  6. Lukas said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    If Michael Crichton can get a species named after him, surely you can too.

  7. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    @Simon Cauchi: I's Clerodendrum thomsoniae and it was named after William Cooper Thomson (incidentally a nephew of Alexander Thomson).

  8. KCinDC said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    JSG, this says it was named after his wife, which would explain why it has "-iae" rather than "-(i)i".

  9. Philip Spaelti said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    @ Jean-Sébastien Girard: I's Clerodendrum thomsoniae and it was named after William Cooper Thomson
    I don't get it. If Thomson is a man, why does it get the feminine ending?

  10. Tim said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    Does anyone know the answer to Lazar's question? I wondered about this myself a while back (specifically, the same point about "H. sapientes"), but no amount of googling told me whether pluralization of species names is allowed or disallowed.

  11. Gary said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    When taxonomists form Latin names, they use the nomen ( the clan name, one of the components of Roman names — in Marcus Tullius Cicero, for example, Tullius is the nomen, Marcus the prenomen and Cicero the cognomen) as its base. These almost all end in -ius for men, -ia for women. When scientists still knew Latin they latinized their names in the same way — Slawkenbergius, Regiomontanus, etc).

    The Y in your mother's name counts as the i of the nomen. So Grayiae would be an alternative latinization of her name. But the form chosen by the taxonomist is the one that has to be used.

  12. Craig Russell said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    Well, in Classical (i.e. Ciceronian) Latin and before, the genitive singular in 2nd declension nouns ending in -ius was -i, not -ii anyway (so the genitive of Vergilius would be 'Vergili', not 'Vergilii'–this is the standard that Virgil himself used in the Aeneid).

    Starting around the age of Augustus (around 31 BC to 14 AD), genitive forms in 'ii' for 'ius' nouns started to get more popular–one assumes as a kind of 'hypercorrection' to conform with the rule of "genitive = noun stem + i".

    A quick glance at some of the Oxford Classical texts on my shelf (which list the author's name in the genitive, to mean "the works OF so and so"), shows that the standard practice for them seems to be to list even "ius" authors with one -i. I see "Horati", "Vergili", "Ovidi" and "Titi Livi" as the genitives of Horace (Horatius), Virgil (Vergilius), Ovid (Ovidius) and Livy (Titus Livius) respectively. And these are Classicists writing these titles, so they know what they're doing. BUT, I see that Apollonius of Rhodes (a Latinized Greek name) is listed as "Apollonii Rhodii, so there is some room for variation.

  13. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:35 am

    Seems to me that if you have to kludge it anyway, you might as well use the third declension.

  14. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:40 am

    @ Sally: It's a blessing that the nomenclaturists didn't go the whole hog & spell the fish's specific name Graeae.

  15. Robert said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Grey may be spelt with a final consonant, but it's not pronounced that way. If you go by pronunciation, the first declension is the natural place for it, though the Romans would have probably written the genitive as Grae.

  16. Craig Russell said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 10:55 am


    I can hear some y consonantialization at the end of "Grey" when I pronounce it. A name spelled "Gra" by the Romans would have been pronounced "Grah" (rhymes with "blah").

    There is a set of English names ending in -y corresponding to Latin names ending in -ius:

    Lat. Antonius -> Eng. Antony
    Lat. Plinius -> Eng. Pliny
    Lat. Pompeius -> Eng. Pompey
    Lat. Ianuarius, Februarius, Maius, Iulius -> Eng. January, February, May, July

    So if there had been a Latin name "Greius", it would have come into English as "Grey". Perhaps "Greius" would be the best Latinized version of "Grey" (which would give Greii as the genitive–but see my post above).

  17. Mike Keesey said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    "[T]axonomic names should remain invariate, right? … Would I be right in saying that species names should be treated as non counting nouns – so we could observe two members of Testudo aubreyii, but we couldn't observe two Testudo aubreyiis?"

    – Lazar

    The former is good; the latter is incorrect. Scientific names are, as you say, invariate. Thus, the plural is the singular. "We observed two Testudo aubreyii."

  18. Mike Keesey said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Incidentally, names of taxa higher than genus-level are usually formed as plurals. Thus, there is ambiguity as to whether to treat them as singular (the taxon) or plural (the taxon's members). Examples:

    "Mammalia is characterized by milk-producing glands."
    "Mammalia are characterized by milk-producing glands."

    The latter sounds more archaic to me, but practices vary across different fields.

  19. Tom Recht said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    Testudo aubreyii
    I believe it's actually Testudo aubreii. Stephen, an accomplished classicist (who if I remember correctly has the whole of the Aeneid by heart) quite sensibly Latinized Jack Aubrey's surname as Aubreius.

  20. Aaron Davies said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    i believe i saw an instance of "Homines sapientes" cited in the wild some time back, found on the back cover of an old science fiction novel (possibly odd john?)

  21. Ben Teague said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    The hyper-regularizing folks who say Homo sapien in the singular are the same ones who ask you for your driver's licen when taking your check. I knew a woman in Texas who described a pair of spectacles as having a left len and a right len.

  22. Alec said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    The rules for this are all spelled out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature at http://www.iczn.org/iczn/includes/page.jsp?article=31&nfv=#1. It looks as if the -i or -ii choice depends on whether the scientific name is formed directly from a modern personal name, or the name is considered to have been latinized before being used as the source of the scientific name.

  23. Thomas said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    The Zoological Code and the Botanical Code, while similar, are different in some respects, and common practice also differs for plants. The -iae suffix is reasonably common in plant names. An interesting example is the Banks family, who have Grevillea banksii, named for Sir Joseph Banks, and Rosa banksiae, named (by Sir Joseph) for his wife.

  24. David Gorsline said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    Consider Lucy's Warbler, Vermivora luciae, and Virginia's Warbler, V. virginiae.

  25. Jim said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    "but no amount of googling told me whether pluralization of species names is allowed or disallowed."

    Pluralization should be beside the point, since in botany and probably in zoology species names are really more like mass nouns. That may be a little creepy for you in the case of humans.

  26. Amber said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Then if we were to convert the parasite name of Pneumocystis carinii (should be italicized, I know, my apologies but I can't figure out how), would the then genitized fungal name be Pneumocystis cariniii?

  27. Amber said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    I only ask the above question because it is argued that Pneumocystis jiroveci {which was a name given to it when it was identified erroneously as a parasite (perhaps)} should be spelled Pneumocystis jirovecii becaused it was already latinized when it was classified as a parasite. The original scientists name was Jirovec.

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