Naming of Organisms

The nomenclatural system that Linnaeus developed in the process of classifying nature proved to be of greater and more lasting benefit to biological science. In the century before Linnaeus, plants and animals were given long, descriptive names (known as polynomials) to differentiate them. For example, the polynomial name of catnip was "Nepeta floribus interrupte spicatus pendunculatis" (Nepeta with flowers in an interrupted peduncu-lated spike). There were no universally applied rules for constructing these names, however, resulting in considerable confusion in naming and referring to living things.

Linnaeus's solution to this problem, which was first applied to the plant world, was to group plants by genus and provide genus names (retaining many already in familiar use, or coining new ones), and then to give each species within a genus a "trivial" name, or what is known now as a specific epithet, so that each would have a unique two-part name, thereby unequivocally identifying that species. These trivial names, often in the form of Latin adjectives, were not necessarily descriptive, but they were linked to descriptive information, diagnoses, and references to previous descriptions in botanical literature. For example, he named catnip Nepeta cataria (cat-associated Nepeta). This enabled scientists to identify organisms with greater certainty, and provided a solid means for expanding and advancing knowledge. All in all, Linnaeus named approximately forty-four hundred species of animals and seventy-seven hundred species of plants.

The use of shorter names did not originate with Linnaeus. Folk names for plants and animals are typically short, and some scientists, notably Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624), used one- or two-word names when possible. However, pre-Linnaean names were often longer, using more adjectives in order to differentiate species within genera. Linnaeus was the first to construct a methodical and consistent nomenclatural system and to apply it to all living organisms then known to European science. His system was so comprehensive and so conducive to an integrated view of past and contemporary botanical studies that it won widespread acceptance and continues in current usage.

The nomenclatural system for plants was first published in his landmark work, Species Plantarum (1753). For animals, a similar system was published in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758). These two works form the baseline for current nomenclatural practice in botany and zoology. Taxon-omists in both disciplines still refer to Linnaeus's works when checking names of organisms, as mandated by international codes of nomenclature in both disciplines. see also Herbaria; Taxonomist; Taxonomy; Taxonomy, History of.

Charlotte A. Tancin

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