If you live in California, the word “gopher” refers to a small rodent with buck teeth that burrows all over your yard, pulling your plants underground by the roots. If you live in Florida, the term refers to an altogether different animal—a land tortoise that is most often found plodding around in the woods. That’s the trouble with common names for animals: there’s no consistence. Lots of animals go by more than one common name and many common names are applied to more than one animal.
But thanks to 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus there’s a better way. Linnaeus came up with binomial nomenclature, the method universally accepted by scientists to identify all living creatures. You know, Homo sapiens and all that stuff, where the first term specifies the organism’s genus and the second specifies species. The Californian rodent mentioned above is Thomomys bottae, while the Floridian tortoise is Gopherus polyphemus—one of my favorite scientific names.
The large majority of binomial names are derived from Latin, with a few Greek words thrown in. In fact, “Latin name.” is frequently used interchangeably with binomial nomenclature. If you search Wikipedia for “Latin name” you will be redirected to the binomial nomenclature entry.
But not all “Latin names” are in Latin (or Greek). For instance, a large, pantropical genus of small reef fish commonly known as sergeants goes by the un-Latiny scientific name Abudefduf. The name was coined in 1775 by Peter Forsskäl, a Finnish disciple of Linnaeus while he was on a 1762 expedition to Yemen. It means, in Arabic, “the one with prominent sides.” Not inappropriate:
So, not Latin, but rolls off the tongue nicely, don’t you agree?