Sunday, March 13, 2011

...and You, Sir, Are No Gentleman

[also not a gentleman but a cuttlefish]

I would be among the first to agree that what you call someone matters—a fact that should not surprise any of you who have read my rants about people calling orangutans “monkeys” or referring to every single animal they see as a “he.” On the other hand, when a term already exists in common parlance, it strikes me as absurd, not to mention pretentious, to suddenly alter that common name and make the usage of it a measure of how smart or well-informed someone is.

What am I talking about, you ask?

Here’s an example. A few years ago the New England Aquarium set up a very nice new exhibit all about, and full of, jellyfish—both true cnidarians and other animals that are transparent and float around in the plankton. They called the exhibit “Amazing Jellies.” –That’s right: not “jellyfish,” but “jellies,” as if they were showing off an especially impressive array of marmalades. It’s part of a new trend, calling jellyfish “jellies” and starfish “sea stars”—because, you see, they’re not really fish, so why call them that? It’s just too ignorant for words.

This drives me crazy. I mean, there’s already enough of a divide between zoologists and people who aren’t trained in science, and already enough scientific names and jargon that’s incomprehensible to the public—why alienate them over common names, too? Why make that be an indication of whether you’re really in-the-know about marine life or not? Of course they’re not fish, but then, neither are cuttlefish—should we call them “cuttles”? Should we no longer call seahorses “seahorses” because they’re not actually horses? Or change the name of sea cucumbers because they’re not related to zucchini? Or get rid of the name “Portuguese man-o’-war” altogether because, hell, that doesn’t suggest sea-life at all?

[side view of a sunflower star(fish);
doesn't it look like a volcano
with lava streaking out from it?]

If people are going to think that cuttlefish are fish, then you need to make sure they’re informed about what cuttlefish are. I don’t think anyone was in danger of considering a starfish to be a fish—and if they were, I doubt a name change would do anything to correct that impression. Why not work on actual education, rather than futzing around with names? The only people who are changing what they call these organisms already know what they are.

What worries me even more is that this campaign won’t stop at “fish” suffixes but really will try to alter other common names like the ones I’ve listed above, thus eliminating poetry as well as accessibility from what we name organisms. And that’s a terrible shame. It’s so much better to appreciate the name “leafy sea dragon” (which is a kind of dramatically ornamented seahorse) and learn, or teach, more about the animal itself than to try to make its common name duller.

[a leafy sea dragon;
its head is to the right]

Maybe once we get that through our heads we’ll be better educators as well as researchers.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

Magnificent photos, and, yes, these creatures should have poetic names.

Joseph JG said...

I completely agree! These common names are frequently very interesting and have fascinating histories of their own. The same goes for the scientific names, like how gastropod means "stomach foot" because they thought snails dragged themselves along on their belly. When you first learn that horseshoe crabs are actually much more closely related to arachnids than crustaceans, that should open a door to fascination and learning about what makes an animal akin to another animal and different from some other one. Fun!

Oh, and the Portuguese Man o' War is named after a kind of ship that had a similar looking sail. Not so much sea-life, more life at sea.

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