Category Archives: Moans and Whinges

Latin Names 101 for Journalists

Newspapers always get Latin names wrong. Over the years, I’ve submitted lots of correctly-formatted copy to editors and watched it get mangled. No more. Here are the rules (rules! not guidelines!) for using scientific names; share them with a journalist you care about.

Genus and Species

Latin names are in two parts, the genus and the species; sometimes there’s a subspecies or variety tacked on the end. “Species” is both a singular and plural noun, by the way.

The New Zealand dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori, has a North Island subspecies, C. hectori maui.

Capitals

The genus always starts with a capital letter; the species never does, even if it’s named after a person’s proper name (like Cephalorhynchus hectori).

This is the first solid evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbours.

Italics

Scientific names are always (always) written in italics. Higher-level groups (which have names like family, class, and order) are never italicised.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the only New Zealand member of the Arecaceae or palm family.

When you’re talking about a whole genus of plants or animals, like Brassica, it’s also italicised. (Once a newspaper told me it’s “not AP style” to use italics and stripped them out, but set my byline in italics.)

Abbreviations

The first time the name’s used, genus and species are spelled in full. Subsequently you can abbreviate the genus.

Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis share 99.7 percent of their DNA.

If you don’t know exactly what species is referred to, or you want to talk about more than one, you can use sp. or spp. (plural) after the genus. Note: no italics.

Campylobacter spp. commonly contaminate food, and five species cause gastroenteritis in humans.
On New Year’s Day, Heaphy noted in his journal that he had shot and skinned some kind of kiwi (Apteryx sp.).

Articles

Journalists often wrongly refer to species with a definite article. It’s better to think of a Latin name as a name, like Dave Smith or Sauron.

The Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [WRONG]
Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [RIGHT]

Special Cases

  • The fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of geneticists, is just referred to as Drosophila. It’s become the vernacular name, so doesn’t need italics.
  • The gut bacterium Escherichia coli is almost always referred to by its abbreviation, E. coli, for obvious reasons. Note: italics.
  • T. rex is the dinosaur, T Rex is the band.
  • Economists sometimes talk about the supposedly “rational human” homo economicus, which is really just a Latin phrase, not a proper biological name, so doesn’t need a capital.

Test

How many things are wrong with this quote?

“[The forestry worker] discovered a large native spider from the stanwellia species.”
(NZ Herald, August 14, 2014)

(Answer: four. “from”, missing italics, genus and species confused, and not capitalised)

Corrected version:

The forestry worker discovered a large native spider belonging to the genus Stanwellia.

or, better,

The forestry worker discovered a large native trapdoor spider (Stanwellia sp.).

Another Test

How many mistakes?

“A 24-cm-long giant amphipod, the alicella gigantean, has been found in the Kermadec Trench.”
(modified from Stuff.co.nz, 23 Oct 2013)

(Answer: four. It should be Alicella gigantea, so missing italics, no capitalisation, needless definite article, and a species name which should look dubious even if your Latin is a bit rusty.)


Does it matter that newspapers get all this wrong? Yes. Geranium and Geranium aren’t interchangeable. The rules are set up so it’s as clear as possible exactly what plant, animal, or bacterial infection you’re referring to. Mess up the Latin name, and you end up talking about something else entirely, and cause confusion or even harm. Journalists pride themselves on getting things right; Latin names are easy to get right.


What the Heck, While I’m Here

CO2: No.
Co2: Nope, that’s two atoms of Cobalt.
CO2: Ugh, seriously no.
CO2: Correct! But almost never seen in a newspaper.

See also: H2O, O2, and so on.

And At No Extra Cost

Phosphorus (n.): the element.
Phosphorous (adj.): Full of phosphorus; compare with sulphurous.

Further Reading

Sucky Money

new_5_dollar_bill.03.jpg In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, David Byrne got it right: “American money is the ugliest money in the world.” (Byrne also claimed that the best way to keep your money from sticking together was to crumple it into little balls. See what you miss when you buy all your music as MP3s?)

Anyway, someone at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing felt that the five dollar bill unfortunately wasn’t quite ugly enough, so they stuck a big Barney-purple 5 on it (note the carefully-clashing sans-serif typeface—wouldn’t it be great if it turned out to be Arial?). Yes, this seems to be for real. Isn’t that the most jaw-droppingly hideous thing you’ve ever seen?

“We wanted this redesigned bill to scream, ‘I am a five. I am a five,”‘ Larry Felix, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We wanted to eliminate any similarity or confusion on the part of the public between the $5 bill and the $100 bill.”

monopoly-money.jpg Well, Larry, I don’t like to tell a man his job, but have you ever considered not making all the bills the same color and size? That seems to work pretty well for, oh, every other country in the world. Actually, I know what Larry would say—every American says the same thing when you point this out to them. “Monopoly money!” Yes, it’s true. Even a child’s board game has better-designed money than the USA.

The original Monopoly design has an appealing simplicity, with slabby serifs and ball terminals in a classic transitional typeface, rather than that ludicrously bloated font on the greenback. The numbers are big and clear. There’s an anti-counterfeiting pattern, and a rather sweet repeated train and house motif—in the real world, those could be little transparent windows in a polymer bill. Heck, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing should just adopt this design as is—after all, Monopoly was invented in the Depression so ordinary people could live the American dream of being property-owning capitalists. And its inventor seems to have stolen the idea. What could be more appropriate? It’s the USA writ small.

Things I Won’t Miss About the USA

Ten things I could never get used to. Note that unlike most critics of the USA, I actually lived there for years and years. For what it’s worth.

  1. Religion a routine part of daily life to rampant creationism, abstinence education, and belief in the impending End Times to people who are offended if you say “damn.”
  2. Political conservatism to no real Left, almost no unions to poverty the fault of poor people.
  3. Social conservatism to death penalty and early marriage fine, interracial dating still controversial to feminists that nevertheless expected me to pay for everything on a date.
  4. A health care system at the mercy of insurance companies to try not to get sick.
  5. Deep-seated federalism to state’s rights to a culture of decentralization and a suspicion of government to locally-funded public schools to half of America doesn’t know the Earth goes around the Sun once a year.
  6. Cheap gasoline to urban sprawl, lack of public transportation and sidewalks, SUVs, and Texas to a tendency to invade Iraq.
  7. Protestant work ethic to one-hour commutes acceptable, fifteen-minute lunches eaten at your desk, ten days leave a year, and sometimes no sick leave or maternity leave at all.
  8. A food culture degraded by the drive for convenience to flavorless produce bred only for looks and shipping, and processed foods laden with corn syrup to ghastly industrial farming and entrenched protectionist agricultural subsidies to Cool-Whip, Easy Cheese, and Twinkies
  9. Obsession with slavery and the Civil War (because nobody else in the world ever had slaves or a civil war) to omnipresent racial politics to lack of engagement with other racial problems, like genocide and immigration.
  10. American exceptionalism to insularity to educated people arguing that if everyone had a gun in their home we’d all be better off, despite evidence from the rest of the world that this might not be the case.

It’s interesting to note that a New Zealander in the US saying these things is accused (more than once) of “hating America” and told to go home. An expatriate American criticizing New Zealand would likely get rueful shrugs and sighs of agreement. OK, and then people would call him a wanker behind his back, but still.