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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Old Whatsisname

I will confess to you now, I did once use the latin name of an animal in a conversation but, and I wish to make this absolutely clear, I didn’t inhale.

It’s true, that in scientific names lies a kind of poetry but, like bardic Welsh, it has a meter and a scheme that only a few people can truly unlock. And if they choose to try and do so, its carefully constructed rhythms stand at risk of being butchered. If that happens with the beautiful and primal Welsh language you get covered in phlegm. If it happens with scientific names one can come across as, to use a technical phrase, a bit of a tool.

It’s also true that in those names lies an originality, something vestigial and primitive; these were names granted before some scientific truths were uncovered and as a result they can be wonderfully evocative of their time. Take the Tawny Owl for instance: Stryx aluco. I’ve heard tell that this means Brown Witch. And to spend time in the dark of a woodland listening to their screeching and tumbling calls is to be reminded why nature may have appeared so unsettling to the people who first thought to call them witches.

But on the whole, it’s the common names of things that hold the real power because they hold a more personal place in a recognisable language: The cloaked minor, the vestal, ingrailed clay, the uncertain, white satin, pale prominent or oak lutestring. Poems all. These are the names which the pastoral moth collecters of previous centuries have left with us, the use of the word ‘the’ as part of the name lending the moth a familiar but imperious air. So which would you rather have, The Gothic or Naenia typica?

The botanists and ornithologists were prose poets too. I want to stumble across ploughman’s spikenard, touch the stem of the rue-leaved saxifrage and be repulsed by stinking iris. I could also wax lyrical about the churring call and soft-as-breath dusk flight of Caprimulgus vociferus or Caprimulgus carolinensis but (while in the USA at least) I’d rather talk about the beauty of the onomatopoeic Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will's-widow, just two of that country’s enigmatic nightjars.

The odd thing is, I envy my scientific colleagues that can catalogue latin names in their mind as easily as they can the names of their children. And, before I appear too hard on them, for the majority of named species it’s absolutely necessary given their tiny size and vast family trees. But I will probably always reach for the accessible, the familiar. After all, it’s the same name that was called out in identification by the people who stood in the same spot a hundred years ago and that’s a powerful continuum.