What's in a name? Sometimes more than meets the eye

Jokes, puns, even insults — when it comes to deciding what to call newly discovered species, scientists don't always go by the book

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In the 1750s, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus devised a system for naming species, and zoologists have been fooling around with it ever since. There's a beetle named Agra vation and a spider named Draculoides bramstokeri. There's a fish named after Frank Zappa, a crustacean genus named for Godzilla, and a fly called Dicrotendipes thanatogratus after the Grateful Dead. At least one entomologist named a genus of bugs after his mistress. A well-known American entomologist, who was also a bigamist, named a couple of species for his two wives.

Having scientific colleagues name a new species after you can be an honor or an insult, however unintended. The genus name Dyaria was coined by an amateur lepidopterist who thought he was honoring a colleague named Dyar.

The potential for bizarre and jokey nomenclature is almost unlimited. A Smithsonian researcher estimates that there are 30 million species on earth, almost all of them insects in need of names.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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