Monday, April 7, 2014

Interview with James Sandrock and Jean Prior, pt. 2

James Sandrock and Jean Prior are the authors of The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest, a Bur Oak Guide published just this month. Bur Oak Guides series editor Holly Carver asked them a few questions about the book.

HC: Many people are mystified, intimidated, or even infuriated by scientific names. How can they conquer this reluctance to embrace technical terminology?

JS: This is neither the time nor the place to break a lance for the study of Latin and Greek and their use in scientific nomenclature. Independent-minded and intellectually curious people will not be swayed by educationists and by the groupthink that have demonized the study of classical languages and literature for decades. I hope that the use and explanation of the Latin and Greek and latinized terms in this book will convey to its readers the fact that classical languages can be relevant, practical—and cool!

JP: Scientific names are unique IDs essential to the correct identification of each species making up the world’s living and fossil organisms. These assigned names are recognized internationally by all persons who study or refer to them, no matter their native language. It’s the one way to be sure that everyone is on the same page when referring to a plant or animal. While these names don’t roll off the tongue of those for whom plants and animals are an avocation rather than a profession, taking the time to look closely at the scientific name of a bird or a plant or a fossil can reveal useful information about appearance, habitat, behavior, or geography, or the travels and dedication of the person who studied and named it, or the person honored through the naming. Look at these scientific labels as the entry point into another world, one that can help us expand, explain, and enjoy the familiar world we know.

HC: What most interests you about scientific nomenclature? What problems do you solve by understanding it?

JS: Classical languages and literatures have been a major part of my life since high school days; words, phrases, names, and etymology are an abiding interest for me. To see these Latin and Greek words, roots, and stems used in a practical, clear, descriptive way that is universally recognized is intriguing and gratifying. Scientific nomenclature can and does solve the “language problem” for a world that speaks in many tongues. In the introduction of this book, we explain how this works.

JP: Delving into the root meanings of scientific names opens a window onto the fascinating history that lies behind scientific labels and the remarkable people who attached them. Readers also have to marvel at the durability of a system (of scientific names) that has been used for centuries to unite people of all languages in common understanding. Knowing the meanings that lie within the scientific names of birds can be helpful aids to their identification and characteristic markings and traits. This is not a standard field guide with pictures; instead, our book helps interested readers “see” birds through their names.

Featured Birds
Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)
Pica: Latin word for "magpie."
hudsonia: Coined Latin adjective for "Hudson" + suffix -ia = pertaining to. "Hudsonian" does not refer to Hudson Bay, which is east of this bird's range. The reference instead is to the Hudson Bay drainage basin (also known as the Hudson Bay Territories or Prince Rupert's Land). The type specimen was collected in 1819 at the Hudson Bay Company's Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, Canada, 400 to 500 miles inland and well within the range of this species.
Common Name: Black-billed Magpie for the beak color
Other Name: American magpie

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Falco: A postclassical Latin word for "falcon," from falx, falcis (genitive) = sickle, scythe, pruning hook. The allusion is to the curved talons and beak—or to the wings in flight.
peregrinus: Latin for "foreign, of foreign places" from peregrināri = to travel about. "Wandering" is an appropriate adjective for this far-ranging bird, one of the most widely distributed in the world.
Common Name: Peregrine Falcon
Other Names: duck hawk, wandering falcon, rock peregrine

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