Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Of cockchafers and bushtits ... or my husband's sudden interest in nomenclature

How you know your wife is a little off:

(Wife, hunched in chair, thumbs through a stack of reference books and mutters to self): "No, not that. Aw, man. That's all there is. Cock... Cock... Let's see...Oh! Here's cock. Nope. Just 'chafer.' Cockchafer, cockchafer, cockchafer again. Cock-frickin'-chafer."

(Husband, snickering, stares at wife): "Good book?"

(Wife, not seeing anything particularly odd or funny): "What? Why?"

As many of you may know, I geek out for both critters and words. Entomology and etymology, I like to say. (By "like to say" I mean I've actually said it. I am indeed a scintillating conversationalist.) Recently, I've been meshing the two with a growing interest in and some research into the fascinating areas of taxonomy and binomial nomenclature.

Really. "Fascinating" wasn't supposed to be ironic.

My husband remains unconvinced, and is not as taken by the topic. And by "unconvinced" I mean "clearly ignorant of how right I am," and by "not as taken" I mean "bored, and also less interested than he would be in something that might pay the mortgage."

Besides, interest a topic in my husband's universe generally comes in two flavors. The first is in flashiness, explodeyness, behemothosity, dramatic mega-fauna ... if Jerry Bruckheimer, Micheal Bay, or J.J. Abrams wouldn't be interested, neither would he.

The second is innuendo and scatological humor. Happily for family time, he shares this affinity with my son. They could spend hours watching a baboon documentary, not because the primates are so fascinating, but because they have big red butts.

I tire of such diversions after about ten seconds. So naturally, my husband and son can subsist for weeks on absolutely nothing but booby/wiener/fart/balls/poop/sex puns, and the occasional intake of oxygen.

They want to include me, see, but I can be a little highbrow and cerebral. And by "highbrow" I mean "no fun," and by "cerebral" I mean "boring."

All of this to say, the cockchafer conversation was sort of the perfect storm.

Me: Well, I was looking for a certain passage on the cockroach, but all I can find is cockchafer.
Him: Really. Cockchafer.
Me: No, really, see? Apparently it's what we call a June bug. But this guy seems quite taken with the name cockchafer. He uses it an inordinate amount of times, like even if you're going to use that term. Seriously. "The cockchafer has... The cockchafer flies... The cockchafer usually appears... The cockchafer eats..." Hasn't the guy ever heard of pronouns?
Him: Well, maybe he's just a pervert who gets off on that sort of thing. Like that one guy with the clams. Is it the same guy?
Me: Linnaeus? No, I don't think so. And anyway, it's a different, um, anatomical feature than the ones Linnaeus seemed to favor.
Him: Right. He liked clams named after woman parts.
Me: Exactly. I guess the, er, fleshy part of one looked like the fleshy part of the other...
Him: Well, maybe to him.
Me: he named them after things like the vulva, anus, labia, hymen and something about pubes. I'm not sure on the last one. But I think.
Him: Seriously.
Me: And flowers. He really only looked at what they did sexually. Apparently plant sexual reproduction was a new discovery, so a lot of people were pretty taken with it. He named plants by what he thought of their sex lives, pretty much. There's names meaning "promiscuous intercourse," "barren concubines," and "parted legs." And listen to what he wrote: "The flowers' leaves serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity."
Him: Wow. Just, wow.
Me: Yeah. I guess a lot of people were kind of bothered by that, especially in the 1700s, but he really was a genius.
Him: Yeah. I can see that.
Me: No, really! He made the basic system for classifying things. And we still use a lot of his names today. I know he named the Mammillaria genus, you know, the nipple cacti...
Him: Those ones you searched for at work?
Me: Yeah. I got pictures of something, but it wasn't cacti, needless to say.
Him: And why nipples?
Me: I guess he thought tubercles -- those things that stick out, with the spines -- looked like nipples.
Him: Not like any I've seen.
Me: And we still have his mollusk names. Look! Penicillus vaginiferus. Vaginiferous? It sounds like some kind of weird-ass compliment: "Your vagina looks vaginiferous tonight, m'dear."
Him: Ha; how about vaginificent. Or vagipendous.
Me: Oh, wait, never mind. Lamarck named that one. But Linnaeus named the whole genus Penicillus. And, apparently, penicillus is a rarely used term for penis.
Him: So that name means penis vagina?
Me: I guess. Oh, here's one Linneaus named. Penicillus penis.
Him: So ... penis penis?
Me: I guess maybe he wanted to make up for the gender bias in his other mollusk names.
Him: At least he had a heterosexual plant and clam fetish.
Me: Here's a biography. It says Linnaeus "loved nature deeply..."
Him: Yeah. A little too deeply.
Me: ...and that it was his job to make a "natural classification that would reveal God's order in the universe."
Him: So he thought God was overly fond of vaginas, then? So did Linnaeus name boobies?
Me: No, I don't think so. And anyway, that's not fair; that's just the common name. There are a bunch of animals with unfortunate common names. Boobies, titmouse, great tit, goatsucker, dik-dik, slippery dick... Some animals have pretty funny stories about where they got their names, but I don't know those ones.
Him: You're just making these up now.
Me: No, really. You're going to question me on an intersection of etymology and biology? I told you it's fun stuff. At least all we have out here is the horny toad, if people call it that; the wood pewee and dickcissel if you really want to push it; I think maybe goatsuckers; a booby was sighted in Arizona once I think but not in a while...
Him: Sounds familiar.
Me (ignoring): ...and the cockchafer obviously, and the nipple beehive cactus. Oh, and the bushtit.
Him: Hee. Bush. Tit. And I thought there was a whole group of nipple cacti.
Me: Genus. And maybe they made sure the other common names were less, um, distracting. Scientific names are pretty bad too. Enema pan, that's a beetle; there's some kind of snail called Fukuia something; ooh, and a solpugid, I love those, called Eremobates inyoanus. I love that one. A something fartus and a Fartulum something. And my favorite is Colon rectum. That's a beetle too.
Him: Scientists have a warped sense of humor, I guess.
Me: They do! Look; here's a story about a fungus named Phallus drewesii. Apparently, this guy named Drewes was on an expedition with a friend of his who's a mushroom expert, and he found this two-inch-long, crooked, phallic-shaped mushroom and jokingly named it after his friend.
Him: So the whole name comes from a your-penis-is-smaller joke.
Me: Yep.
Him: Well, just find more stories like this, and I might be more interested in this field.

Him: Say it again.
Me: Oh, come on.
Him: No, really. Is it "entomology?" I thought that was insects.
Me: Oh! Etymology. Study of word origins. Entomology is insects. Sorry. I thought you wanted me to say the stupid bug name again.
Him: Hey.
Me: What?
Him: Say it.
Me: Say what?
Him: You know.
Me: [Sigh.] Cockchafer.


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heather said... Best Blogger Tips

We went to the zoo today. Do you want Tom to tell you how many animals he saw poop? It was the best part of his day. Sigh...males...

Kim Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Ha, yeah. Pretty much anything related to the posterior is popular around here.

I discovered today that the species name of one of our most common dragonflies, blue dasher, is longipennis. Apparently it means "long wings." Sure.

My son and husband will be pleased.

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