Article #119, May 2007
By Bill Cook
Ever heard of Carl Linnaeus? He's arguably the most well-known Swede to ever live. Sweden features his likeness on their currency. Places on the moon are named after him. The Swedish name "Linnea" grew popular to honor Carl. This year, the world (or at least Sweden) will celebrate his 300th birthday in May.
Linnaeus is best known for designing the scientific names of living things using Latin, the scholarly language of the day. Linnaeus first published this classification scheme in 1737 but the most recognized work was the tenth edition of "Systema Naturae" in 1758. Science does not recognize names given prior to 1758, but the first name given after that date takes precedent over any later names. The classification scheme has rules.
Every living thing has two names; one for the genus and a second for the species. The genus name is always capitalized, the species name is not, even if it is derived from the name of a person or place (e.g. Fraxinus americana). Scientific names are either italicized or put into quotes. So, sugar maple is called "Acer saccharum." "Acer" refers to "maple" (Greek origin for maples) and "saccharum" contains the Latin root for sugar or sweet. All other maples have the "Acer" genus name. In this way, anyone will know that all "Acer" species are somehow related (over 100 species, worldwide), or at least appear similar.
Every scientist will also know that "Acer saccharum" refers to one, and only one, species. This avoids confusion with all the different common names and names in other languages. This international classification system revolutionized communication in the world of biology during the European Age of Discovery; when gains in all fields of knowledge grew at an amazing rate. It also helps organize living things into similar groups beyond genus and species, such as family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, etc. Up until that time, awkward systems devised by Aristotle, and others, had been used.
Linnaeus used the structure and function of living things to classify them, often reproductive organs for plants and appearances for animals. This roughly conforms to evolutionary relationships, although that was not likely an intention of Linnaeus. Charles Darwin didn't write his "Origin of the Species" until 100 years later.
Linnaeus took advantage of the rivalry between Swedes and Norwegians. As the chief name-giver of the time, he slighted the Norwegians by naming the most noxious critters after Norway. The infamous rat, spreader of plagues, was named "Rattus norvegicus!"
Scientific names sometimes recognize famous botanists, explorers, and other honored people. For example, jack pine is named "Pinus banksiana," after Joseph Banks, a renowned botanist and colleague of Linnaeus. Banks was one of the folks who suggested that Australia's Botany Bay be used to form a penal colony for the British, and he accompanied James Cook on his first epic voyage 1768-1771. "Banksia" is also a genus for about 80 species.
Many times, a geographical reference is built into a name. "Betula alleghaniensis" or yellow birch was described from the Allegheny Mountains. Other examples include "Ulmus americana" (American elm), "Prunus virginiana" (chokecherry), "Tsuga canadensis" (hemlock), and "Thuja occidentalis" (northern white cedar). The "occidentalis" refers to the "occident" or the west, as opposed to "orientalis," the "orient," or the east. All this is from a European perspective, of course.
Less dramatic, many scientific names use Latin or Greek roots to describe something about the plant or animal. Glauca, alba, and nigra/nigrum refer to the colors blue, white, and black. Rugosa, glabrous, tomentosa, and pungens mean rough, smooth, hairy, and prickly. You might be able to figure out the meanings of tree species names such as "tremuloides," "grandidentata," "papyrifera," "rubra/rubrum," "spicatum," "ellipsoidales," or "deltoides."
People have a scientific name, too. "Homo sapiens" means the intelligent/wise modern human, from Greek and Latin roots. There were other species of "Homo" in history, too. These names all have meaning, even if the Latin words and spellings sometimes mystify us.
Linnaeus was not only the inventor of biological classification; he was also
a medical doctor, naturalist, botanist, zoologist, mineralogist, linguist, and
philosopher. Truly, a great man of the Renaissance. So, for all those folks
whose names end in "son," he's another reason to celebrate ethnic
Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at email@example.com or 906-786-1575.
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