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Re: when did T rex come into usage?
At 09:28 PM 8/21/97 -0700, you wrote:
>> By the way, I think T.rex is the only animal correctly referred to (genus
>> and species as well as scientific abbreviation) by the general public. Can
>> anyone think of any other???
>>> How about E. coli?
> Betty Cunningham
E. coli is a member of the Monerans, not the Animalia.... Anyway, I would
add Homo erectus (to the extent that the general public refers to it at
all) - but this brings up a point.
While I can understand Brian Franczak's feelings, and I certainly do not
like seeing popular misconceptions about science, I think there is another
way to look at the name issue. The reason we refer to most extinct
creatures by their scientific names is because they were not around for
people, as their languages developed, to evolve (if I can use that word in
this context) common names for them. English vernacular names today are
often of very ancient vintage, come from other languages, and sometimes are
totally inappropriate as a result - eg "Indri" for the largest of the
lemurs, a Malagasy word that actually means something like "look at that"
or "there it is" rather than the local name of the animal, "babakoto".
New vernaculars get coined regularly - certainly this is true for birds.
Newly-described species get names like Cryptic Warbler or Po'o Uli (the
last a coined Hawaiian name for a bird discovered in the 1970's), and old
names get changed - thus we call a South American species "Blue Cotinga"
that was referred to a century ago, quite delightfully, as "Natterer's
The point is that for species that do not have truly "popular" vernacular
names of long linguistic standing, names tend to get coined if there is a
perceived need to have such things. That this happens for birds much more
than for (say) newly-described invertebrates reflects the popularity of
birdwatching among people who do not want to be burdened with binomials.
It has, of course, happened with some extinct forms too. Thus we have
"cave bear" and "saber-toothed tiger", both every bit as inaccurate as
"raptor" when a dromaeosaurid is intended, but fixed in the public mind
nonetheless. It is rather surprising that it has taken this long for the
same thing to start happening to dinosaurs - perhaps it is because there
are, today, bears and tigers, so the names conjure up an image much more
readily than "Smilodon" or "Ursus spelaeus", but there is no familiar
animal to whose name we can easily attach a modifier to come up with a
suitable monicker for Triceratops or Pachycephalosaurus. God knows, Robert
Bakker has tried with his crimson crocs and what have you, but I doubt that
these coinages will "stick".
So to "raptor" and T. rex". I can't say, given the above, that these names
(which are just names, not statements of fact or implied fact) bother me
any more than any other evolution of the language (now to the point at
which "web" no longer means something woven by a spider, and "e-mail" is a
neologism almost everyone understands even if they don't own a computer).
They certainly bother me far less than actual misstatements about science.
No one is going to mistake an eagle for a Velociraptor because the term
"raptor" is applied to both - in fact this is far less likely than
confusion about names like "dolphin", which can be applied to a mammal or a
fish, or the many scientific generic names that mean an animal to a
zoologist and a plant to a botanist.
I think what bothers us, really, is not this but the extent to which
Spielberg has sold the world the idea (wittingly or not) that the JP
dinosaurs are the real thing - and, of course, that is partly because they
are so believable, so much more so than any movie dino beforehand. Perhaps
it is too bad that fiction has become so blended with fact - though I would
argue that this is less a concern for species long dead than for living
creatures whose survival may depend on whether the public regards them as
slavering monsters or something worth having around (eg great white sharks,
killer whales, tigers). And if just one person is stimulated by JP to go
on to the real thing, and becomes a paleontologist, and, perhaps, adds as a
result to our understanding of what these creatures were really like, will
science itself not be better off?
Ronald I. Orenstein Phone: (905) 820-7886
International Wildlife Coalition Fax/Modem: (905) 569-0116
1825 Shady Creek Court
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L5L 3W2 Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org