What Does Nomenclature Mean?

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As fun as it sounds to be responsible for naming animals, there is a strict set of rules for scientific naming. This process is known as nomenclature. It’s the set of rules, processes, or the general ways names are chosen – particularly in science. These rules and regulations for scientific names are overseen by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN.)

While this may seem frivolous – do we really need a whole committee to oversee naming? – it’s important.

Let’s take the great white shark for example. Carcharodon carcharias to scientists. White pointer, white death, and tommy shark in Austrailia. In Croatia they go by pas ljudozder – which roughly translates in English to dog cannibal. In Denmark they’re called blå haj – which translates to blue shark in English. In France requin mangeur d’homme – man eater shark. Would you know that a tommy shark, a dog cannibal, and a blue shark were all the same as a great white shark? Probably not.

Language barriers present a huge problem for science – and people in general. Without scientific names, science would grind to a crawl. Not to mention confusion among already confused species. Java moss is a good example of how confusing names can be even with scientific names in place.

Java moss (Taxiphyllum Barbieri), formerly Vesicularia dubyana is not Christmas moss (Vesicularia montagnei.) It’s not Taiwan moss (Taxiphyllum Alternans), willow moss (Fontinalis antipyretica), bladder moss (Physcomitrium pyriforme), flame moss (Taxiphyllum sp.), or triangle moss (Vesicularia sp.) Though all of those common names get tossed around for Java moss. Which is obviously confusing since those common names are also common names for unrelated species of plants.

How could we possible communicate that without scientific names? Answer: we couldn’t. Enter nomenclature. 

Yes, they have some rules that seem… odd. You, for one, can’t name the animal after yourself. So your dreams of discovering a frog only to name it the [insert your name] frog are ruined. Sorry! At some point in time, this was generally accepted as okay, but after the ICZN organized it became less acceptable to do so. Another odd one is who named the animal must remain anonymous if the animal was name, or renamed, after 1950.

So, no, we’ll never know who named a whole family of fish Phallostethus (Greek for penis chest.) Even though their genitalia is on their head. Guess we’ll never know what they would’ve called them had they known at the time. But I can guess and would I love to buy that namer a cup of coffee some time. Alas, I’ll never know who to buy coffee for.

At any rate, they have some useful rules that keep our animal naming world in order. If you fancy a read, you can check out the whole guide to ICZN nomenclature online (not a titillating read by any means but, hey, a read’s a read.)

Further reading & Sources

ICZN – The International Code Of Nomenclature (Online)

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