Pick from the Past
Natural History, December 1942

How They Got Their Names

MOST of us know that when we eat Welsh rabbit we get cheese instead of rabbit, that the hamburger is not made of ham, and that hot cross buns may be cold, and chili soup hot. But few of us realize what a fascinating hodgepodge of inappropriate names many of our well-known plants and animals carry, or how often when we call them by their right names other people will not know what we are talking about.

Some of our familiar birds, of course, have fine names. No one, surely, will want to quarrel with such clearly descriptive names as bluebird, blackbird, cardinal, or woodpecker, or such obviously imitative ones as flicker, pewee, chickadee, killdeer, or bobwhite. These birds, because of color, voice, or habit, have, in a sense, named themselves.

The erectile feathers on its neck gave the appropriate name “ruffed” grouse to our fine woodland drummer; prairie chicken could hardly be improved upon for the grouse of our central states, although heath hen for the now extinct eastern form was equally good. “Red-tailed” hawk is another fine name, for the bird is red-tailed.

Hundreds of other names are equally appropriate. But coming close to home, those jaunty, brick-dust-breasted fellows which search for worms so commonly on our lawns are not closely related to the English, and original, robins. American robins are thrushes, as readily may be seen from the speckled breasts of the young ones, a feature common in greater or lesser degree to all young thrushes.

In the case of our “turtledove,” which properly should be called “mourning dove,” two mistakes have occurred. It is not the same bird as the smaller European species for which it was named, nor should the name “turtle” be applied to it. The Latins called the European form turtur because of its soft voice, and this was corrupted by our ancestors into “turtle.” The fact that this misrendering of the word has been carried over into the English Bible has caused much confusion. For in the Song of Solomon we read that “the voice of the turtle was heard in our land,” and this, to the devout but uninformed, can mean only the vocalizing of the reptile of that name.

Our orioles turn out to be blackbirds. True orioles (a group of birds related to the crows) are not found in North America. Our Baltimore oriole should have been just “Baltimore bird,” as Catesby called it in 1731. The Baltimore part is correct, for the bird's gold and black match the colors of Lord Baltimore, for whom it was named. Also we discover that our warblers are different from the European birds of that name. Nor does the name “Bohemian” tagged to our beautiful waxwing fit very well, for this species was not derived from central Europe as its name implies. Still less fitting is the name “turkey” for our fine Thanksgiving bird. The turkey really hails from Mexico but had to be carried to Europe by the Spaniards to acquire the wrong name by which we know it.

Our habit of piling name on name is illustrated by our great brown cat, the American puma or cougar, which the early colonists called “panther,” the old Greek name for leopard. The Yankee woodsmen soon corrupted this name to “painter,” and this splendid animal now bears the additional names of “catamount” and “mountain lion.” The birds, however, bear off the palm for multiplicity of common names. The coot or mud hen, for example, is known under 24 different names, and the name “coot” is also applied to half a dozen other species as well. Sixty-five different hunters in various parts of the United States could each shoot a ruddy duck and each rightfully call it by a different name. But the flicker really captures first prize, for it is known by at least 127 vernacular names.

The plant-namers have not been less active. East of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio, 15,000 common names have been distributed among only 4000 plants. Though the French were in Canada and the Spanish in Mexico years before the coming of the English, most of our names for native plants and animals are of English origin. And since language is not made by the educated but by the common people, the majority of our conspicuous birds and mammals and plants were named by men who were often careless with words and usually ignorant of zoology and botany. We may say that theirs was an honest ignorance, for what with Indians to fight and a raw country to subdue, they had little time to bother about getting the strange plants they saw or the animals that ran or flew about them into their proper groups. They simply had to have names for these things, so if an animal or plant looked like one they were already familiar with back home, they called it by the name they knew, often adding the term “wild” to distinguish it. This simple method readily disposed of dozens of species, of which wild ginger, wild oats, wild goose, and wild pigeon are commonplace examples. False indigo and false strawberry are other examples of a long list of plants in which the term “false” distinguished the species from similar forms.


Indian names

If the colonists had never seen the plant or animal in question before coming to this country, they sometimes adopted the Indian name for it. This brought into our language such useful and time-honored names as pecan, persimmon, and chinquapin, as well as woodchuck, moose, skunk, opossum, and raccoon. One might wish that they had followed this plan further. Indian pipe, Indian potatoes, and Indian corn are pertinent examples of a hundred or more plant names in which the word Indian appears. This was done, sometimes disparagingly, to indicate plants used by the red men.

More often, however, particularly when compelled to invent a name, they usually called a plant after something that it resembled or after the animal which ate it, such as bloodroot and catnip. Many more plants—all in the Indian doctor's materia medica—got their names from ailments they were supposed to cure or cause; hence ague root, pleurisy root, and ninebark, the last being a sort of cure-all.

Upwards of a hundred plants were rightly or wrongly thought to be bad for animals, such as dogbane, cowbane, henbane, and fleabane. And 70 or more species were named for snakes, none of which, however, had anything to do with snakes except by way of suggestion, say, in appearance.

Strangely enough, of the 65 plants named for the dog, not one of them compliments man's best friend. None of the several dogberries, for example, are edible. Less strange, perhaps, is the fact that those names referring to the hog all express insignificant or disagreeable qualities. Names prefixed by the term “horse” or “bull” usually indicate large or coarse forms, pertinent examples being horseweed, horseradish, bull thistle, bullfrog, and bull-bat.

Sometimes the namers reversed the procedure and named the animal for the plant. Familiar examples of such really appropriate names are woodpecker, cedarbird, tree toad, potato bug, and tomato worm.

In those early days, heaven was seemingly nearer the heads of men than now, and hell much closer to their feet, hence we should not be surprised to find both Satan and the Saints coming in for their share of names. Although not always appropriate, no less than 30 of our common plants carry the name of the devil, familiar examples being the devil's-paintbrush, devil's-club, devil's-horn, and devil's-grandmother. Among the animals, he is remembered in such names as devil-down-head for the nuthatch, devil's-darning-needle for the dragonfly, devil's rear-horse for the praying mantis, and, by implication, hell-diver for the grebe.

All of these animals are harmless to man, and even among the plants, legend has it that those known as “devil's-bites” have their names from the fact that their blunt rootstocks indicate that the devil had bitten them off out of spite for their medicinal qualities.

Among the saints, St. John appears to have been most popular with the namers of plants, for in a list of 96 British plant names, his name occurs sixteen times. It was formerly the practice to name a plant in honor of saints in order to gain their favor. This custom had fallen into disuse about the time of our beginnings as a nation, which accounts for the fact that many such names known in America were imported.


When is a gopher not a gopher?

But we cannot lay all credit or blame to the New Englander. Down in Florida they still call a certain stork an “ibis,” in spite of the fact that they do have real ibises there which they call “white curlews.” Also they call both a snake and a kind of burrowing tortoise a “gopher,” a term applied elsewhere to a small burrowing animal about the size of a mole. Yet with consistent and delightful inaccuracy, the Floridians call their pocket gopher a “salamander” —a cold-blooded creature related to the frogs—and one of their true salamanders, a “congo eel.” An eel, of course, is a fish.

And so this popular game of calling and often miscalling things goes gaily on. Whoever is responsible, most people continue to dub all insect larvae as “worms,” although they are not worms. A common little worm found in ponds and creeks is usually called a “horsehair snake,” although neither a snake nor an animated hair. And the loud, harsh-voiced cicadas which sound like buzz saws in our trees in summer will probably remain “locusts,” although that name is properly applied only to short-horned grasshoppers.

Fishermen call our big-eyed perch, the “wall-eyed pike,” the shovel-nosed sturgeon, a “spoon-billed catfish,” and any small fish to them, is always a “minnow.” Indeed, the common names of fish are so numerous and so chaotic that fishermen in the several states, even though catching the same varieties of fish, hardly speak the same language in talking about them. To remedy this, the American Fisheries Society has set out to standardize the popular names of common fish. If they have their way, the big-mouthed black bass will no longer become a “green trout” when caught south of the Mason and Dixon's line, and the Massachusetts sportsman in Minnesota won't dare say he caught a “horned pout” when it was only a bullhead, or to the southerner, a catfish.


The scientific method

Since 1773 biologists, following the example of Linnaeus, have attempted to escape this multiplicity of common names by giving to each distinct kind of animal or plant a so-called scientific name in Latin or often Latinized Greek. Ideally, a name once given would be the same the world over, and would remain the same. Each animal or plant would have a name composed of two parts, the first part designating the group or genus corresponding, say, to Jones among family names, and the second part being the specific or given name—John, for example. Man's scientific name is Homo sapiens, that of the dog is Canis familiaris. Scientific names are written in the opposite order from ours, which is quite sensible, for it puts the important part first.

This system not only names things but it groups them as well, for all species under the same genus have the same first name. But it must be admitted that some of these scientific names are badly chosen too; and in spite of the good intentions of the scientists, such names frighten people at first sight, though we unwittingly use some of the hardest ones when we pronounce such tongue-twisters as chrysanthemum and rhododendron. Most of us are being unknowingly scientific when we use such familiar words as asparagus, begonia, magnolia, dahlia, and geranium, for each of these is the first part of the scientific name of the plant mentioned. Some of us, also, may be surprised to learn that fuchsia and magnolia, respectively, to mention only two, honor the memory of Fuchs, a great German botanist, and Magnol, an early French student of our flora. And who does not unhesitatingly say “boa constrictor” —the whole scientific name—when referring to that snake at the circus or zoo?


Jaw-breakers

if we had never known any other names, each of us, perhaps, could use the scientific names as readily as we now use the common ones. But when we come across such a jaw-breaker as Citellus tridecemlineatus, which is the scientific name of the little thirteen-striped ground squirrel of the central states, many of us will doubtless shake our heads and go right on calling the animal “grinny,” “gopher,” “flagtail,” or “whistling streak,” depending largely upon the locality and who saw it last. Indeed, scientific men have often given names to things long before they understood clearly what they were naming. When the Englishman, Robert Hooke, squinting through his crude microscope nearly three centuries ago, first saw the finer make-up of a piece of cork, he called the tiny units composing it “cells,” because they looked to him like little rooms, and that name has stuck—possibly because it is short and easy to say—in spite of the fact that every college freshman knows that Hooke was dead wrong. They are not box-like, hollow things at all, at least in animals.

Much the same may be said for that oft-repeated word “vitamins.” When first discovered, chemists thought these important substances belonged to a group of known compounds, the amines, and being shown to be necessary to life, they were accordingly called “vita-amines.” Yet now that we know that some of them are not amines, we still call them vitamines. The “vita” part, however, is still meaningful, for we cannot live without them.

What are we to do then with our flying foxes which are really bats, with our gar pikes which aren't pikes, and with our glass snakes, which are lizards, and with our bald eagle, which is not bald but merely white-headed?

Why, go right on calling them what we have always called them, to be sure. For the average person probably feels toward this idea of calling familiar things by other names than those to which he is accustomed, very much as the Baltimore Sun feels toward the campaign to change the speech of the New York school children. It is a “downright useless expenditure of effort; if it succeeded, it would be destructive of color and vitality,” says the Sun. To pronounce “bird as boid and verse as voise” . . . is what makes “Brooklyn interesting and stimulating to the rest of the country.”

We get along fairly well even if one hunter does call his duck a pintail, while another says his is a “sprigtail” or a “spiketail,” and it does give color, freedom, and variety to our speech. Must we change Buffalo Bill to “Bison Bill” because that great hunter never slew a buffalo in his life, but only bison?

When is a thrush not a thrush? When it is a Louisiana water thrush, a true wood warbler, answers the scientist. But for most of us, it will remain a water thrush for all that, just as our big red-breasted thrushes will continue to be robins. Scientists will eventually agree upon one scientific name for each life form, and many of the common names which have not been much used will gradually he dropped from the records, as they should be. But great numbers of them, even though they do not fit, are here to stay.

Hence, for most of us, when we go for a stroll, the dogtooth violets will be just that and none the less attractive in spite of the fact that they are not violets but lilies; and the New England aster for many will still be the “last rose of summer.” Mountain ashes and prickly ashes will remain so, even though they are not ashes, and our calla lily will still be lovely and still a lily though really it is a close relative of the jack-in-the-pulpit. The orioles or hangnests will be no duller of color though they actually be cousins of the blackbirds. The poison oak will irritate our skins just as effectively though it be poison sumac, poison ash, or what you will! Most of us, too, will see no contradiction in terms when we say we saw some yellow or white violets, or that blackberries are red when they are “green” —meaning, of course, unripe.


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