Anagrammatic naughtiness

anagramsAfter the strict scientific naming revolution of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century gave way to a bit more word-play. Anagrams, for example, became one way of lightening the mood and of stretching an existing scientific name into related species groups.

An example can be found in two kingfisher anagrams. Both Lacedo (L. pulchella, Banded Kingfisher) and Dacelo (kookaburras, e.g. D. leachii, Blue-winged Kookaburra) are anagrams of the Alcedo generic epithet. Other existing examples are the single-species genera Nilaus (African bushshrike Brubru, Nilaus afer) after Lanius shrikes and Tabara (Latin America’s Great Antshrike, Tabara major) after Batara (Giant Antshrike, Batara cinerea).

A further two generic names look like anagrams but are most likely unintended. Purnella, although seemingly an anagram of Prunella, is actually a patronym in honour of Australian naturalist Herbert A. Purnell. Cape Petrel (Daption capense) was given its generic name from the Greek daptes, little devourer, by James Francis Stephens, an English entomologist. Incidentally, it is also an anagram of the Portuguese name for Cape Petrel, pintado, for painted bird, although unintended.

And then there is the house martin epithet. The three species within the Delichon genus are blessed with an anagram of Chelidon, from Greek χελιδών, swallow. The first person to come up with this genius little word-play was one Frederic Moore, an English entomologist working as assistant curator for the museum of the East India Company. A specimen of a new species of Indian swallow had been taken to Moore by Brian Houghton Hodgson, naturalist and anthropologist, who has been homaged by many patronyms and described some 79 bird species (and discovered 39 species of mammals and 124 species of birds). Since Moore described the hirundine species, his name has been attached to the new genus. Although first published in the 1854 Catalogue of the Birds in the Museum of the Hon. East-India Company by Thomas Horsfield and Frederic Moore, it was intended to appear in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London first but was delayed. The notice in the Proceedings starts:

‘The subject that I beg to lay before the Meeting this evening, is a new form belonging to the family Hirundinidæ, lately collected in Nepal and presented to the Museum of the East India Company by B.H. Hodgson, Esq., which is allied to, but certainly distinct from, the genus Chelidon, and for which the following anagrammatic name is proposed. Delichon (nov. gen.).’

The establishment was not amused. Word-play in general had been condemned as early as 1842 by a Committee appointed ‘to consider the rules by which the nomenclature of Zoology may be established on a uniform and permanent basis’. It had appointed 13 members, among whom was Charles Darwin. Under the heading ‘Nonsense names’, which includes anagrams, the Committee states:

‘Such verbal trifling as this is in very bad taste, and is especially calculated to bring the science into contempt. It finds no precedent in the Augustan age of Latin, but can be compared only to the puerile quibblings of the middle ages. It is contrary to the genius of all languages, which appear never to produce new words by spontaneous generation, but always to derive them from some other source, however distant or obscure. And it is peculiarly annoying to the etymologist, who after seeking in vain through the vast storehouses of human language for the parentage of such words, discovers at last that he has been pursuing an ignis fatuus.’
H.E. Strickland et al., Report of the Twelfth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1842 (London: John Murray, 1843).

Many anagrams have since disappeared and only exist in the shadow-world of synonyms.

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