Fancy Names for Ordinary Stuff

Years ago, while visiting my sister in Massachusetts, I discovered on one of her bookshelves a book with the unlikely title Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Gibbons had already become famous as an advocate for foraging wild food, but this was my first encounter with any of his books. I don’t know how much of it I read during that visit, but I know that I read this passage:

Years ago, I was very impatient with anyone using a long Latin name to designate a common, ordinary plant. I considered the use of these tongue-twisting titles to be an affectation, designed to show off the knowledge of the user. Why couldn’t these high-brows use the common name, which everyone understood?

I think it was the Pigweed, more than anything else, that cured me of this attitude. Pigweeds are among the commonest of the unwanted plants in fields, gardens and barnyards in Pennsylvania. Therefore, I was not surprised to find that pigweeds were also common in Indiana, when I traveled there. I learned that farmers in Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Hawaii were troubled with pigweeds. Obviously these farmers should get together and learn some way of controlling this troublesome weed. The only difficulty with this procedure was that, in each of these localities, the “pigweed” was a different kind of plant. To complicate matters even more, ‘Chenopodium album’, the pigweed of Pennsylvania, also grew in all these other places. In some sections it was called Lamb’s Quarters, in some Goosefoot and in still other it was referred to as Wild Spinach.

I began to see why the botanical classification was necessary. Many totally different plants are called pigweed in some parts of the world. The plant I call pigweed is known by dozens of other common or folk names in different places. Therefore any attempt to use the common name in distant places would only lead to confusion. But I can say ‘Chenopodium album’ and a trained botanist from any part of the world would instantly know the precise plant meant. Far from confounding the confusion, these Latin names greatly simplify the task of communication in this area.

More than that, the botanical name can tell me more about the plant in question than even the most descriptive common name ever could. If I had never seen this particular plant, the name ‘Chenopodium’ should tell me that this weed is a member of the same family to which garden beets and spinach belong. If I don’t have this knowledge at my fingertips, I can easily look it up in any botanical manual. About this time I’ll begin to suspect this plant might be good to eat.

— Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, 1962

I was reminded of this book and this passage some years later when I discovered that when our friends in Middle Tennessee talked about “buttercups” they were talking about what I call “daffodils” (Narcissus spp). I have no idea what they call the plant I call “buttercup” (Ranunculus spp.). So, yes, I think Gibbons makes sense, and largely because of what he said I try to remember to add the “scientific name” whenever I mention a plant or animal by the common name that I know.

But over the past few years I’ve run into a few problems with this practice. Lately I’ve been noticing plants that have more than one “scientific name”. The Trumpet vine, for example, might be listed as Campsis radicans, or Bignonia radicans, or Tecoma radicans. I think this is a bit confusing, but it seems that botanists and zoologists aren’t overly troubled. In any case, searching by any of those names will bring you to the same result.

Giving “scientific” names in my little stories isn’t intended to make me look smart — I have to look up every one of those names because I don’t actually know very many of them — it’s just my attempt to be precise.

[My thanks to Matthew (the “CuriousFarmer”) for commenting on his very similar reaction to Gibbons’ words, and including the text cited above in his post:]

Some notes on the naming of plants:

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