When it comes to certain things, I am a pedant. Not the annoying beat-you-over-the-head type of pedant, but the type that has been known to geek out over methods for reporting taxonomic authorities (it’s all in the parentheses).

This weekend, I had two related thoughts about something that many of us biologists use on a regular basis – those agreed-upon names, comprising species and genus, that transcend our own “common names”.  The first question is what, exactly, we should call them?

It’s rather common to refer to “Alca torda” as the Latin name for the Razorbill, but a more proper title would be the bird’s scientific name. Not all scientific names are Latin. Some are Greek, Arabic, or even Swahili. In this case, Alca is Icelandic or Norse for “auk”*. Calling “Alca torda” the Razorbill’s Latin name is akin referring to all lightbulbs as “fluorescent”; some bulbs are, indeed, fluorescent, while others are not, yet they are all lightbulbs.  Some scientific names are Latin, while many are not, yet they are all scientific names.


Another oddity, and one for which I don’t have an answer, deals with parentheses around such scientific names (we’ll leave the discussion of brackets and braces for another day).  While it’s all well and good to talk about Alca torda eggs, and Diomedea dabennena diet, or even Alle alle altitudes, it’s more common to call them Razorbill eggs, Tristan Albatross diet, and Dovekie** altitudes.  It makes our science more accessible, even among specialists.  While I know that a Fluttering Shearwater is Puffins gavia, it’s different from a Great Shearwater, which is Puffinus gravis. And someone who isn’t up on their classification of the Procellariidae might be easily confused, or have trouble following along.

So for better or worse, we often use common names, and insert the scientific name at each species’ first mention.  But how we do this is inconsistent, and I don’t know if there is a right way.  Some options are:

  • Razorbill (Alca torda)
  • Razorbill Alca torda

I tend to prefer the first, as the italicization doesn’t often render well in some typefaces (notably sans-serif), and it’s easier for my brain to parse the scientific and common names.  It also identifies to me that it’s an aside, and we will use “Razorbill” as our collective shorthand for “Alca torda L. 1758″.

I realize that this is likely discipline specific – some taxa simply do not have common names for all species, and some disciplines have a culture of using scientific names.  Some journals insist on one of the styles above, but the decision appears to be editorial or stylistic, and not founded in any actual logic.  I don’t know what that logic is, but perhaps some fellow pedants could point it out.


*You can check out Roger Lederer & Carol Burr’s fantastic book “Latin for bird lovers“, and ignore the gross error in the title, as I do.

**we’ll discuss common English bird names later.