What is the best way to make sure your insult lasts a really, really long time? Well, if you're a scientist who has the pleasure of naming a newly described genus or species, you might be able to get away with inserting your insult into biological nomenclature. After the rise of modern taxonomy, a few people did just that.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature actually has a rule against a zoologist proposing a name that "gives offense on any grounds." And let's face it, for most people, having an organism named after you, particularly using binomial nomenclature, is an honor.
While many people take perverse delight in the knowledge that there are species of slime-mold beetles named for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, for example, the entomologists who named them (former Cornell University researchers Quentin Wheeler and Kelly B. Miller) insist that the names were intended as tributes, not insults. After all, these are scientists who adore slime-mold beetles, who named slime-mold beetles after their wives and other people they admire. When Dominic Evangelista auctioned off the naming rights to a newly discovered species of cockroach — one whose female likely eats the male's uric acid during sex — he joking referred to the auction as "Vengeful Taxonomy," saying:
Let's be honest, though — most people have negative feelings about cockroaches, so why not name one out of spite, scorn, or revenge? Got a cheating ex-boyfriend? Hate your boss? Maybe you're just tired of hearing news about certain celebrities — Xestoblatta justinbieberii, perhaps? You get the idea.
But the winner was Dr. May Berenbaum, the 2015 Vice President of the Entomological Society of America, and she decided to name the cockroach after herself. That urea-eating cockroach is now called Xestoblatta berenbaumae. Why wouldn't she want her name enshrined in entomological taxonomy?
Not all organisms have been named with such good intentions, however. If you dive into the website Curious Taxonomy (which was the jumping-off point for much of this post), you'll find plenty of insulting biological names. One thing that's clear from the list, though, is that it's tough to separate truth from scientific urban legend.
You'll often hear that Carl Linnaeus named the weed genus Buffonia as an insult to rival taxonomist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon was a harsh critic of Linnaeus' method of categorizing species, considering Linnaeus' taxonomy absurd. Linnaeus responded that "[Buffon] isn't particularly learned, but as he is rather eloquent, that seems to count for something." Burn. But an 1858 article in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society claims that Linnaeus started spelling the genus Buffonia (which comes from bufo, the Latin word for toad) with two "f"s before he became aware of the Comte de Buffon.
In other cases, though, Linnaeus did use his power as the world's preeminent taxonomist to insult people he didn't like. Linnaeus would often honor his colleagues, friends, students, and people he admired by naming organisms after them — and he'd dishonor his enemies. The most famous example is Siegesbeckia, a genus of weeds known for exuding a nasty-smelling substance. The genus is named for fellow botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck.
Why would Linnaeus want to punish Siegesbeck by naming a smelly plant after him? Well in December 1737, Siegesbeck condemned Linnaeus' categorization of plants by their sexual organs as "loathsome harlotry." He thought the descriptions of a single flower fertilizing 20 other flowers, for example, was a form of sexual immorality. Curious Taxonomy notes that Linnaeus named the Siegesbeckia genus before Siegesbeck published that particular polemic (it's described in an edition of Hortus Cliffortianus that came out earlier the same year), but other writers point out that Linnaeus was likely already aware of Siegesbeck's criticism of his work. And Linnaeus did say just a few months before Hortus Cliffortianus came out that there should be a connection between a plant and the botanist it was named for.
Siegesbeck got off light compared to Linnaeus' least favorite student. Daniel Rolander had a falling out with Linnaeus after Rolander returned from a sample collecting trip in Suriname. After Rolander refused to show his full collection to Linnaeus, the taxonomist broke into his former pupil's home, stole some of his materials, had him blackballed from academic organizations, and immortalized his disdain for him by naming a species of beetle Aphanus rolandri. "Aphanus" in Greek means "inconspicuous." You did not want to mess with Linnaeus.
Other researchers were similarly guilty of abusive naming. According to an oft-repeated tale, the paleontologist O.A. Peterson named the prehistoric mammal Dinohyus hollandi after W.J. Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Holland was infamous for listing his own name first on every scientific paper, no matter how little work he did on the paper in question. So Peterson decided that it would be perfect to lend his boss's name to a giant hog. Swedish paleontologists Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg named organisms after each other: Warburg named a trilobite Isbergia planifrons ("planifrons" means "flat-headed," which in Swedish implies stupidity) and Isberg named a mussel Warburgia crassa ("crassa" is Latin for "thick" as in fat). There's nothing like hurling your insults across biological nomenclature.
One of the most amusing stories about spiteful naming comes out of the so-called "Bone Wars" between rival paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. We've written a bit about the Bone Wars before, but the short version is that their friendship turned into a bitter scientific battle, one that inspired the men to actually sabotage each other's work. In 1884, Cope named a prehistoric mammal Anisonchus cophater, and wrote to his assistant:
Osborn, it's no use looking up the Greek derivation of cophater, because it is not classic in origin. It is derived from the union of two English words, Cope and hater, for I have named it in honor of the number of Cope-haters who surround me.
There's no question that Marsh was among those "haters." In 1978, paleontologist Leigh Van Halen decided that it was only fair to name another prehistoric mammal after Cope: Oxyacodon marshater.
Incidentally, with all this talk about how Linnaeus played with biological nomenclature, there is a plant named for the famous botanist and taxonomist: Linnaea borealis, the twinflower. Linneaus wrote in Critica Botanica:
Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief space—from Linnaeus who resembles it.
Was Gronovius insulting Linnaeus with the plant's name? According to Wilfrid Blunt in his book Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist, no. It was, in fact, "mock modesty" on Linnaeus' part. He arranged for Gronovius to name the plant after him, another example of Linnaeus using nomenclature for his own particular desires.