by David Lukas
When we look out at the natural world around us it might feel like everything is known, or at the very least that everything is named. And while it is true that all known organisms are named, even down to the most obscure mushrooms and microscopic worms, how many of us look closely at these names?
Nearly all the labels for tens of thousands of plants and animals in North America have been given to us by scientists. This lends the names an air of authority and legitimacy, but the surprising fact is that much of this terminology is poverty-stricken: these names are mere place-holders, shallow names with shallow stories behind them.
I say this because the vast majority of these names were concocted by scientists who had little to no experience with an organism’s life or character when they named it (species are typically named first and then studied in detail only if someone later takes a special interest in that new species). In the case of North American birds, for example, this has led to anomalous names like Hermit Warbler and Solitary Vireo (birds that were named before their social tendencies had been studied).
An astounding number of names have been created by scientists in museums who have never seen the organisms in their living forms or in their native habitats. There is a sizable degree of arrogance encoded in these names, and they often leave real-world observers scratching their heads. Names like Ring-necked Duck, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow describe features that might be visible on dead museum specimens but are obscured in real life.
Many other names merely denote superficial features such as colors or shapes, or the geographic locations where organisms were first collected. At an even greater remove are the huge numbers of names that commemorate the male-based system of scientific reciprocity, men naming species after other men as a way of legitimizing each other’s “greatness.” The list of North American bird names bearing men’s surnames is daunting: Cassin’s, Cooper’s, Hammond’s, Harris’s, Heermann’s, Swainson’s, Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and so on. It is telling that out of some nine hundred North American birds, only three are named after women, and all by their first names only (which was never done for men): Anna’s Hummingbird, Grace’s Warbler, and Lucy’s Warbler.
And sadly, at least in the case of birds, there are very few names that signify spiritual, mythological, or poetic properties. The closest I can find are goatsuckers and ibis, although there is a kind of poetry in names like starling (‘little star’) or crane (‘to cry out’).
So does it matter if these names are shallow, and should anything be done about this? There are no easy answers, but it will be difficult for any of us to rethink the natural world when the entire system of knowledge is bounded by a coded language controlled by a single committee of scientists. (All naming rules and choices are decided by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, a group of twenty-eight scientists, only four of whom are women as of this writing.)
When all is said and done, these “technical” names are at best placeholders, rapidly created according to preconceived rules in order to keep pace with the furious rate of discovery (15,000 new species are named each year). The proper role of a scientist, after all, is to discover natural “facts” and keep moving with the frontier of discovery, not to double back and fill in human meaning. So here we are, looking at a world of placeholders, and the question is whether anyone wants to double back and fill in the places these names are holding.
One solution might be the radical re-creation of new names that arise from a deeper understanding of each plant or animal’s life, or that arise from a richer cosmology of the natural world. It is understandable, however, if a writer feels unable or unwilling to propose radical new names, so another choice might be to rename species through the less radical linguistic processes of clipping or blending. Thus, rather than entirely jettisoning common names like Brewer’s Blackbird or Douglas-fir (both of which embody the old practice of naming species after prominent men), you might end up with “new” names such as brewbird or dougfir. In fact, a handful of abbreviated names like these are already used colloquially by field biologists, but I know of no examples that have become commonplace in written communication.
Clipping is a common word-forming process whereby parts of words come to stand for whole words or phrases. Clipped words may look strange when they first appear, but some become so familiar that users forget or no longer use the original words. Examples of clipped words would be binocs for binoculars, flu for influenza, hyper for hyperactive, phone for telephone, or radio for radiotelegraphy. Clipping is not an exotic linguistic process; in fact it is a modern phenomenon that picked up steam in the twentieth century through the media of magazines and newspapers.
Blending is a process of forming new words from the parts of two or more words. Common examples of blended words include brunch (breakfast+lunch), motel (motor+hotel), and smog (smoke+fog). This process seems to be particularly successful where components from the source words overlap in pronunciation or spelling (e.g., motor + hotel). Blends are similar to and can include clipping to the extent that blends contain clipped words that have been joined to form new words. Another option is to blend the first letters of words to form acronyms, as in UNESCO, NATO, YMCA, UFO, or snafu (situation normal all fouled up).
Clipped and blended words typically arise in social situations where shared, long-term usage makes it possible to communicate clearly even when using parts of common words; this would make these words ideal within a community of people who share a passion for speaking of the natural world. Clipped or blended words are often faulted for having an air of frivolity, but they serve a vital social function by making communication within a group of people more succinct and efficient.
The processes of clipping or blending the common names of plants and animals opens up some intriguing ways to think about naming, though admittedly these processes may work well only for charismatic and widely referenced species. Examples already in common usage include colloquial names like redtail for Red-tailed Hawk, coop for Cooper’s Hawk, sharpie for Sharp-shinned Hawk, and coho for Coho Salmon. Creating other new names will require a sense of playfulness, but examples of how these processes might work could include sneg or snegret for Snowy Egret, cavi or cavire for Cassin’s Vireo, weki or wekibird for Western Kingbird, gianquoia for Giant Sequoia, polepine for Lodgepole Pine, and osapine or pondo for Ponderosa Pine.
It should be clear that clipping and blending are infinitely creative processes, so there is no reason to feel limited by these examples. Ultimately, these processes may or may not prove to be productive ways of responding to the issue of shallow names; they are simply one potential solution for taking ownership of the names you use.
David Lukas is a naturalist and writer based on the west coast of North America, where he has spent his life teaching people about the natural world and grappling with questions about how words and names shape our relationships with the natural world. His most recent book Language Making Nature (www.languagemakingnature.com) is an exploration of these same questions. This excerpt is part of his extended argument that we reclaim these vital relationships by playfully (and creatively) renaming the things of this world that matter most to us.