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What's in a Name?

Apr 27, 2010

I love questions from curious people. I always learn something answering them. Today I got one from that increasingly endangered species, a letter writer. He even enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope for my reply!

The writer wanted to know what sort of fish a “jack salmon” is. When I was a kid, that’s what we called a walleye. However, an Internet search revealed that this name also is applied to various members of the salmon and cod families. Cod, it turns out, also are called “whitefish.” The name “whitefish” is variously applied to whiting, haddock, hake, pollock, sturgeon and ghost sharks, not to mention beluga whales. Don’t get me started on all the fish that go by the name “whiting.”

This sort of foolishness is why the 18th century scientist Carl von Linne established a formal system to assign one Latin name to each of the world’s plants, animals and a surprising number of things that fall somewhere between those two artificially tidy categories. Von Linne, who went so far as to Latinize his own name to “Linnaeus,” couldn’t stop people from inventing new, creative, confusing names for everything in God’s creation. But thanks to him, every plant, animal and plantimal now has an official name that allows us to know what we are talking about, at least within the constraints of our ability to tell them apart.

Humans may be creative in devising new monikers, but nature is endlessly resourceful in producing variations on the theme of protoplasm. That reminds me of a guy who recently told me he believes gray and fox squirrels are crossbreeding to produce a new species. I think I’ll call the result the “Silver Fox Squirrel,” Bushytailus silverus.



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