A Gorilla By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet 

By Bob Brett, Whistler Naturalists

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father, and refuse thy name.

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet . Act ii. Scene 2)

Two of the lines most often quoted from Shakespeare appear at the end of the quote above. This is the scene where Romeo is hidden in the bushes pining for his forbidden love – forbidden because Romeo’s family (the Montagues) and Juliet’s family (the Capulets) are engaged in a family feud that would make municipal elections seem tame.

Juliet asks: "What’s in a name?" It’s a profound philosophical question since, as philosophers say, the name is not the thing. Nonetheless, a conversation without consistent names for the same things would be pretty difficult. This was the case in science well into the 1700s.

Then a Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus, introduced his Systema naturae , a revolutionary approach to naming and classifying species. We still use the basics of the system he first introduced in 1735, notably the unique binomial ("two name") given each species. Perhaps the most famous application of Linnaeus’ system was the stop action shots in the Roadrunner cartoons. I remember one, when the coyote was about to be blown up for the 10th time, that read something like "Wile E. Coyote ( Dynamitus explodicus )."

Part of the joke was that it played on the way scientists really did (and do) name things. And the result was always a lot funnier than the real name, in this case, Coyote ( Canis latrans ).

The scientific naming system is used for every species, from coyotes to the bacteria causing strep throat ( Streptococcus pyogenes ). We intuitively know that coyotes are dog-like (canine), and scientific naming recognizes their close relationship with wolves ( Canis lupus ) and domestic dogs ( Canis familiaris ).

The Latinized names parodied by the Roadrunner cartoons make this powerful naming system even more useful. The common language allows scientists from around the world, regardless of mother tongue, to communicate.

Some of these cumbersome Latin names are part of our everyday speech – just check out kids’ books filled with animals like hippopotamus ( Hippopotamus amphibius ), rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros unicornis ), and gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla ). Kids and PhDs even share some full scientific names, like Boa constrictor and Tyrannosaurus rex .

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