Field of Science

In Which I Reveal Just How Much of a Freak I Am

It's all there in the subtitle to this site. In the last few days I've decided to set myself a task that will probably be ridiculously time-confusing, gut-wrenchingly futile and will doubtless cause me to become even older before my time than I already am. But it's something that hasn't been done since 1923, and I think the time is ripe for it to be done again. I'm thinking of compiling an index for all described taxa of long-legged harvestmen. With a few thousand species involved, this is no small task.

But the thing is, and this is the freakish part, I actually really like nomenclature. Nomenclature is the specific part of the taxonomic process where the researcher sifts through the assortment of available names and works out which is the correct name to use for the organism sitting before them. It is important to distinguish the identification of the correct nomenclature from the identification of the organism itself - the nature of the specimen won't somehow magically change if the name attached to it does. Nomenclature is simply the system of labels that researchers have agreed to use in order to allow communication. As such, many people seem to regard the identification of the appropriate label as a somewhat arduous and uninspiring task, but personally I find it can be quite a lot of fun. As frustrating as past confusions can be, there is also something appealing in the challenge of sorting them out.

As a group, harvestmen have their share of nomenclatural challenges. I've just linked to my post on the mess that is Gagrella in which I just scratched the surface. There are no less than five taxa laying claim to the name Gagrella bispinosa as a result of its repeated use as a subspecific name. The oldest harvestman genus, Phalangium, was originally used by Linnaeus for pretty much any arachnid that wasn't a spider or a scorpion, leading to a fair number of homonyms spread between a number of orders. These are the sort of things I'd like to delve into for the next few years. Sure it's a big call, but if you can't be a little hubristic as a grad student, when can you be?


  1. I knew you'd do it... Good luck!

  2. Christopher, its OK. You are not alone man. There are others who like nomenclature too. There are others who sift through the latin dictionary making weird combinations of phrases (like trying to make cheese-eating surrender monkey work, in honor of a french colleague of mine, alas it was just plain too long). There may not be many of us Christopher, but we are here for you.

  3. It's nice to know I'm not the only one! I'm currently compiling a catalogue of family-group names for Orthoptera... no easy task, but I most definitely get a buzz from nomenclature and it's nice to know that I'm not alone. Perhaps we should all start a blog devoted to nomenclature to give us an outlet for our nomenclatural fetish!

  4. A taxonomy group blog, kind of like Dechronization is for evolution? I like the idea! But we do this on each of our blogs already lol.

    Could we call the blog Nomen Nudum???

  5. Sam: Good luck with that. You've picked a real tough one - in my experience, family group nomenclature tends to be, well, kind of broken. I think I'd like to nominate Bouchet & Rocroi's (2005) nomenclator of gastropod families as the best example of a family-group nomenclator I've seen so far. It's also worth reading Bock's (1994) bird family nomenclator for a whole set of examples of just how much things can go horribly wrong, but then you've got to read Storrs Olson's (1996) review of just how Bock went horribly wrong.... (Olson, seemingly never one to mince words, describes Bock's publication thus: "Unfortunately, in this instance the Teutonic fountain of omniscience has spewed forth a sphagnum opus that is a bog of fatuous and sometimes inexplicable errors that can only be regarded as mire. Because this work is one of the most meretricious and fallacious documents ever produced in the history of zoological nomenclature, a frank caveat lector must be issued lest it be accepted and its myriad errors perpetuated."

    Personally, I'm already more than willing to pump the Catalogue of Organisms full of nomenclature. That, in fact, is why I called it the CAtalogue of Organisms ;-). Nomen Nudum is already the name of the newsletter for one of the palaeontology societies - I think the society that publishes Alcheringa. You'd have to be careful about your choice of name there, though, lest it affect how things work out:

    "Nomen Nudum" - nobody posts anything on the site.

    "Nomen Oblitum" - A couple of people post on the site, but then everyone forgets that it's there.

    "Nomen Rejiciendum" - A brief spate of posting, then everyone decides that it's too much trouble to maintain.

    "Nomen Dubium" - the site gets posted on, but nobody has any idea what the posts mean.

    "Nomen Conservandum" - everything on the site turns out to have been done before, but everybody ignores the earlier work.

    "Nomen Vetitum" - the source code for the site is broken, so the site just never loads up.

    I think I'd prefer to go for the over-arching Brahmanic approach and just call it "Nomen".

    Bock, W. J. 1994. History and nomenclature of avian family-group names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 222: 1-281.

    Bouchet, P., J.-P. Rocroi, J. Frýda, B. Hausdorf, W. Ponder, Á. Valdés & A. Warén. 2005. Classification and nomenclator of gastropod families. Malacologia 47 (1-2): 1-397.

    Olson, S. L. 1996. Review of W. J. Bock, "History and Nomenclature of Avian Family-Group Names". The Auk 112 (2): 539-546.

  6. Christopher: thanks for the pointers to those family-group nomenclators. I'll definitely check them out. As difficult as it can often be (the phrase 'to open a can of worms' comes to mind!), I find family-group nomenclature really quite enjoyable. It's a curious fact that, while a whole lot of effort goes into ensuring the correct usage of genus- and species-group names, family-group names are often employed with comparatively little consideration. This inevitably results in numerous errors in their application, which often go unchecked for years and become perpetuated in the literature. This is really strange when you think about it, as family-group names are regulated by the Code just like genus- and species-group names are. Very odd...

    As for a nomenclatural group blog, I think it's a great idea. Perhaps we could call it Nomen Animalium, though this might offend the botanists and bacteriologists!

  7. Glad to be of help, Sam - keep me posted on how things are going.

    I do have some thoughts on why family-group nomenclature is so much slacker than lower ranks, but considering as it brings up questions of past practice and the history of the codes of nomenclature themselves, I think it might just be worth saving as the subject for a post in its own right. Watch this space!


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS