Scientific names

Above is a picture is of Caltha palustris flowering in Lambrok Stream, a plant I have always called marsh marigold but that Ian calls kingcup. Who is right?

Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

In the UK, Caltha palustris is known by a variety of vernacular names. These include in addition to the most common two, marsh marigold and kingcup, also brave bassinets, crazy Beth, horse blob, Molly-blob, May blob, mare blob, boots, water boots, meadow-bright, bullflower, meadow buttercup, water buttercup, soldier’s buttons, meadow cowslip, water cowslip, publican’s cloak, crowfoot, water dragon, drunkards, water goggles, meadow gowan, water gowan, yellow gowan, goldes, golds, goldings, gools, cow lily, marybuds, and publicans-and-sinners.

That is thirty two different local names for a single plant, all of them used somewhere in Britain. But it only has one scientific name, Caltha palustris, and that is used all over the world.

A scientific name (also called a binomial or binomen) is made of two parts: the first part, the generic name is the genus to which the species belongs and the second part, the specific name, is the name of the species. For instance, the scientific name of the park’s house sparrows is Passer domesticus. The Passer bit, the genus, is just the Latin word for sparrow and the genus includes a whole bunch of other sparrows from all over the world. The domesticus part is the species name; it’s Latin for of the house.

Our tree sparrows’ scientific name is Passer montanus, which means sparrow of the mountains but never mind; they are Passer montanus wherever you find them and they are found all around the globe with a thousand different local names in a hundred different languages.

Left: tree sparrow (Passer montanus); right: house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Scientific names are usually in Latin because the convention of binomial nomenclature began in the 18th century when Latin was the international language of science. Convention also requires that a scientific name be written in italics whenever possible. The genus name always begins with a capital letter and the specific name usually begins with a small case letter.

It all sounds a bit pretentious but it’s really just a centuries-old way of avoiding confusion.

We always keep our species lists with the scientific name first

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