larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next

August, 2002


by Valerie

The English language contains an amazing number of words and a good portion of these are labels that we attach to the things around us. Animals hold a special fascination for me and, ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to know the answer to that eternal question, "What is it?" Growing up surrounded by animals and spending lots of time outdoors, I encountered plenty of unusual creatures. The big ones were easy to identify. Everyone knows what a heron or deer is called. The smaller the creatures got, though, the more likely we were to invent names, or use locally common ones which were slightly out of the mainstream.

Val holding a snake and some
unidentified object, and probably asking
"What is this?" Joliet, IL, 1962

As I've been writing the articles for our garden web site, I always look up the species of plants to obtain the correct Latin name. This is the only reliable way to identify just about any particular plant, because the common names can vary so much from region to region that many people would have no idea to which species I was referring. As useful as the scientific names are, they are quite difficult to remember, and generally just don't have the same "personality" and appeal of the English labels. The various names given to any plant or animal can be so varied and interesting that I often find myself being sidetracked down the nomenclature trail.

There are a few colloquial names that are so common they become accepted as the official common name. Some of these strange appellations were the result of English speaking explorers encountering completely alien animals on new continents. When Europeans first saw the North American pronghorns, they had no previous experience with this type of mammal and named it according to what it reminded them of: African antelopes. Although pronghorns are not at all closely related to antelopes, they are often still called just that. The same holds true of bison. Buffalo are Old World animals, such as the Cape buffalo and the water buffalo. Our bison, in spite of being a different type of animal, still carry the same name, which relates them to the wrong group.

Some names are just plain confusing. Our moose and the European elk are the same species. Instead we apply the name "elk" to the large deer that are closely related to the Old World red deer. Along the way, somebody tried to clear up the confusion by using the native name of wapiti but it has never been very popular in common usage. Here's another one: Is it a cougar, catamount, panther, mountain lion, or puma? They are all names for Felis concolor.

As I mentioned previously, the smaller or less commonly encountered animals are quite often given all sorts of different names. Here is just one example: the black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus). This is a popular panfish, which tastes delicious. Its colloquial names include all of the following: Barfish, Bachelor Perch, Bream, Calico Bass, Crawpie, Freckle, Google Eye, Grass Bass, Mason Perch, Moonfish, Oswego Bass, Papermouth, Sacalait, Shiner, Slab, Speckled Bass, Speckled Crappie, Speckled Perch, Specks, and Strawberry Bass.

Very early on, my parents provided me with various field guides and identification books, which gave them the opportunity to answer my incessant questions with, "Go look it up." Even with the help of Golden Guides, we still used plenty of unusual names, mostly inherited from older relatives.

One of the most noticeable examples of our personal way of labeling things was not with animals, but mushrooms. We always collected and ate several wild species. Some names were official, like Amanitas (very poisonous), puffballs and morels. However, we have always called the mushroom known as hen-of-the-woods, sheephead. Other names for more traditional looking mushrooms included buttons, golden tops, and stumpers.

We kept various pets, including green anoles from a pet store. These were known as "chameleons" because of their ability to change color. They are actually not related at all to those slow moving Old World lizards with the weird eyes and long tongues.

Among the creatures we found in the local rivers, one really confused me. Though superficially resembling a chiton, when I pried one off its rock, it had legs, like an insect. I already knew that chitons were saltwater mollusks and certainly didn't have legs. It wasn't until many years later that I discovered these little beetle larvae are really called water pennies. It seems that water creatures are often easily misnamed. We called crayfish (or crawfish) simply crabs, no relation to the well-known saltwater crustaceans. When we traveled to Florida, it seemed odd that their crawfish were actually what we knew as spiny lobsters.

The bivalves that inhabit the river bed were always referred to as clams. Now that they are mostly endangered, I've seen many articles calling them freshwater mussels. Here is a case where I think the official name is a bit off base. Mussels are fastened to the substrate, clams aren't. Even people who have never been near the ocean now know what a real mussel looks like, since the zebra mussel invaded the Great Lakes. There just isn't that much similarity between the clams in the rivers and typical mussels.

To a child, some names are very misleading. I always thought that mudpuppy and water dog, acceptable common names of Necturus, conjured up images of something cute and cuddly. A foot long slimy aquatic salamander with sandpaper teeth is just the opposite. The advertisers in old magazines who invented the moniker and sold "sea monkeys" definitely capitalized on the image (which they graciously provided) of some adorable little primates, when they were actually hawking nothing more exotic than brine shrimp.

Some of my favorite colloquial names are those applied to pillbugs. These little terrestrial isopods are extraordinarily common and are found all over the world. A friend in Australia calls them slaters (a term applied to the related isopods that scurry over rocks by the ocean here in the U.S.). They are also called rolypolies and doodlebugs. Doodlebug is also a name given to antlion larvae. Pillbugs are sometimes even called wood lice, which is another name for the related sowbugs, with which pillbugs are sometimes confused.

Even people in the same family can have misunderstandings when it comes to describing some creature. I remember my mother mentioning a freshwater dogfish. I knew of a saltwater shark called a dogfish. The bowfin, a primitive freshwater fish related to gars, is also named freshwater dogfish. However, my mom described it as having a large head and being very ugly. My dad said it might be related to suckers. After looking through an Illinois fish identification book, my mother finally cleared up the mystery: the fish was a hog sucker. Hog and dog are rather similar words and the fish definitely is extremely ugly.

To this day, even with all the references and resources available, I still make up names for things. We have two retama trees in our front yard. Their various common names just don't adequately describe the smooth green bark, tiny scale-like leaves, fiery yellow and orange blossoms, and all too effective thorns. Therefore, I've dubbed them "dragon trees."

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next