A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but surely it would seem a little bit different if we knew it as a "puddingwife" or "slippery dick."
Thankfully roses escaped that fate, but these two fish weren't so lucky:
Puddingwives and slippery dicks of the world are finally getting some long-deserved sympathy on Twitter, thanks to the latest in a recent string of trending sci-humor hashtags. On the heels of #CuteOff, #JunkOff, #FieldworkFail and #distractinglysexy, marine biologist and blogger David Shiffman made waves this week by challenging scientists and naturalists on Twitter to list #StupidCommonNames for animals:
Ok scientists & naturalists, it's time for a new hashtag game. #StupidCommonNames . List animals with stupid common names. Photos encouraged— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) September 1, 2015
All species have a formal, Latin name that's informed by international standards. Although these can be whimsical — sometimes honoring celebrities from President Obama to SpongeBob SquarePants — the rules of binomial nomenclature help keep them relatively descriptive. But this rigidity also keeps such names a bit dry for everyday use, so people have given colloquial names to lots of familiar species. Some of these predate the 18th-century advent of binomial nomenclature, and some are just a mix of linguistic necessity, creativity, laziness and absurdity.
Halichoeres radiatus or Halichoeres bivittatus don't exactly roll off the tongue, for example, so it's no surprise we've given those fish simpler titles. But while their common names may be less of a mouthful, they offer little information about the fish themselves. Halichoeres radiatus is more commonly known as the puddingwife wrasse, or simply "puddingwife," a memorable yet baffling moniker. At least Halichoeres bivittatus' nickname, slippery dick, conveys that fish's knack for slipping out of human hands, even if it inevitably brings out the third-grader in all of us.
And it gets weirder. Some species' common names are downright deceptive, like the geoduck, which is a clam, not a duck. Or the bombay duck, which is a fish. Or the African pygmy goose, which is a duck. There are interesting stories behind misnomers like these, revealing our jumbled efforts to categorize the world around us. But as Shiffman and others have explained, the goal of this hashtag isn't necessarily to dissect or disparage "stupid" names — it's just to point out how odd or amusing they are. And in that spirit, here are some of the best examples so far:
Common Nighthawks are rare diurnal flycatchers. It's wrong three times in only two words. #stupidcommonnames— Andrew Middleton (@EcoAndrewTRC) September 1, 2015
And finally, one of our species' most infamous misnomers: the pineapple.
Don't feel sorry for the slippery dick and his ilk, however. Their strange names are just relics from a simpler time, and they're mostly harmless. If any word becomes confusing or outdated enough, language will eventually evolve to correct it.
And for now, these stupid common names are bringing a wealth of publicity to some otherwise obscure species. While Halichoeres bivittatus and radiatus might deserve more dignified titles, the fish have generated more buzz on Twitter this week than most of their brethren in the Halichoeres genus. (Halichoeres means "salt pig" in Greek, by the way. Sometimes even scientific names can be kind of stupid.)