Plant and Bird Names

There are quite a few examples of scientific names stretching across plants and animals (hemihomonyms). Most of the animals in question are insects and invertebrates, though some are fish, and occasionally mammals (Nelsonia) and birds (Archboldia, Leptosomus).

DunnockIn the Western Palearctic, we are blessed with two bird/plant hemihomonymic genera. Prunella can refer to either accentors (birds, e.g. P. modularis, Dunnock) or self-heals (plants, e.g. P. vulgaris, Common Self-heal). Similarly, Oenanthe can refer to wheatears (birds, e.g. O. oenanthe, Northern Wheatear) or water dropworts (plants, e.g. O. crocata, Hemlock Water Dropwort).

The origin of Prunella (plant) is uncertain, though most likely derived from Latin prunum (plum), thus transposing the colour of red plums to the flowers/petals. Prunella (bird) is first mentioned in Gessner’s 1555 Historiae animalium liber III qui est de Avium natura – the scientific term seems to be a Latinization of the German Braunelle (Dunnock).

Oenanthe‘s etymology is straightforward: it is a combination of the Greek oinos (wine) and anthos (flower). Its interpretation when applied to birds or plants is different though. The plant name is interpreted as scent: the flowers of water dropworts have a wine-like smell. The bird name is supposedly first mentioned as oinanthe in Aristotle’s History of Animals, although unidentified; it was thought to appear in the vintage season (Horace) when the dogstar appears (Aristotle), probably in the vicinity of vineyards.

Apart from these scientific hemihomonyms, an English-language species name is applied to two (related) birds and two plants in the British Isles. Redshank is generally used to refer to a bird with red legs (Tringa totanus, Common Redshank, and Tringa erythropus, Spotted Redshank), a plant with red stems (Persicaria maculosa) and a moss with red stems (Ceratodon purpureus). Incidentally, only the scientific name of the moss refers laterally to the colour red (in purpureus), with no reference to the shanks.

The The

Definite articles shouldn’t cause any difficulty in the English language. Unlike in German, for instance, where a plethora of definite articles is used depending on gender and case, the English language knows only one: ‘the’. Easy.

Recently, however, ‘the’ has become a bit of an annoyance in certain publications. Every now and then ‘the’ seems to be capitalized when used in relation to the Netherlands. An example:

‘Moltoni’s Warbler is already split in The Netherlands and Italy from Subalpine Warbler’.

This example is lifted from Birdwatch magazine, a UK monthly; it is common practice here. Where is this strange usage coming from? Is it the idiosyncratic behaviour of a copy editor? Maybe Birdwatch uses a Dutch person to read their copy, as I have seen ‘The Netherlands’ used by Dutch people writing in English. Or maybe, they have been reading too much of the KLM in-flight magazine Holland Herald, another culprit. What is the justification of the misuse of ‘the’?

In a word, none. Unlike The Gambia, the only country that uses ‘The’ as part of its official name, the Netherlands do not add an article to their official denomination. In fact, like country names such as France, Germany and Italy, there shouldn’t really be an article preceding it. Since it is a plural noun, a preceding article is of course de rigeur.

Elevating ‘the’ to capital status almost makes it look like it has become part of the noun. It is not. We might end up with the The Netherlands, The-Netherlands or Thenetherlands.

A thorn in the flesh.

Marmora’s Warbler

Marmora's WarblerThe Marmora’s Warbler found near the Blorenge, Gwent, 3 June, is the latest in a series of megastar birds to hit the British Isles in the past weeks. If accepted it will be the fifth record for Britain and the first for Wales. A resident or short-distance migrant of Sardinia, Corsica and the western Italian islands, it is remarkable that this bird has arrived here. As it is a second calendar male, it is more understandable that it has overshot its migration course, most probably due to a lack of experience.

This is a species with a curious linguistic geography. First described by Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck on Sardinia in 1820 as Sylvia sarda, where Sylvia means ‘inhabitor of the woods’ (in this case, ‘wood warbler’) and sarda refers to Sardinia. The species is known in almost every European language as Sardinian warbler. Avibase lists 20 languages in which this is the case. The exceptions are:

  • English: Marmora’s Warbler;
  • Estonian: Vahemere-põõsalind = Mediterranean warbler;
  • Greek: Μολυβοτσιροβάκος = pencil warbler;
  • Hebrew: סבכי כהה = dark warbler;
  • Icelandic: Eysöngvari = island warbler;
  • Maltese: Bufula Griża = grey warbler;
  • Slovenian: otoška penica = island warbler;
  • Welsh: Telor Marmora = Marmora’s warbler.

A varied list, though colour and geography seem to dominate as adjectives. In English (and in its translation into Welsh) the bird is described through a patronym, in honour of Italian naturalist Alberto Ferrera La Marmora, who had associations with Francesco Cetti and Franco Andrea Bonelli, both of whom have been homaged by eponyms and patronyms.

The recently split Balearic Warbler, Sylvia balearica, has a range restricted to, indeed, the Balearics (excl. Menorca). Described by Jordans in Mallorca, in 1913, it was considered subspecific to Marmora’s Warbler for decades. Not so surprisingly since its recent split and restricted range, it is known in many European languages as Balearic warbler; apart from in Catalan, the language spoken in the Balearics, where it is known as Busqueret coallarge, i.e. long-tailed warbler. As Balearic Warbler is the only species within the longer-tailed clade of the genus Sylvia to occur within the Balearics, its Catalan name does make sense.