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A Gorilla By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet


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The scientific naming system is used for every species, from coyotes to the bacteria causing strep throat ( Streptococcus pyogenes ). We intuitively know that coyotes are dog-like (canine), and scientific naming recognizes their close relationship with wolves ( Canis lupus ) and domestic dogs ( Canis familiaris ).

The Latinized names parodied by the Roadrunner cartoons make this powerful naming system even more useful. The common language allows scientists from around the world, regardless of mother tongue, to communicate.

Some of these cumbersome Latin names are part of our everyday speech – just check out kids’ books filled with animals like hippopotamus ( Hippopotamus amphibius ), rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros unicornis ), and gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla ). Kids and PhDs even share some full scientific names, like Boa constrictor and Tyrannosaurus rex .

Other examples of the everyday usage of scientific names are not so obvious, but are crucial if you ever want to win at Scrabble. Think of the most common domesticated mammals: dogs ( Canis familiarus ), cats ( Felis domesticus ), cows ( Bos bos ), and horses ( Equus caballus ). Their names are the roots for many English usages:

When you go to the dogs, you can bite off a lot with your canine teeth. Canis major, the constellation of the Big Dog, is where you’ll find the dog star, Sirius. If you ever want to say someone’s catty without them knowing, call them feline. The vacant stare of cows chewing their cud leads to the mild insult "bovine."

Equestrians know all about the equine roots of horse. But they may not know they would once have competed in a hippodrome – hippo being the Greek name for horse (and " Hippopotamus " means river horse). The species name, caballus , is the root of the words caballeros, cavalier, and cavalry.

The rose Shakespeare referred to was the briar rose ( Rosa canina ). You don’t find briar rose growing naturally in Whistler, but what the Bard says is true: our native roses do smell as sweet.

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Thursday, Nov. 14th — Chris Czajkowski, Author of "Life of a Wilderness Dweller" and "Log Building for the Single Woman," Myrtle Philip School, 8 p.m.