The start of a new year always presents an opportunity to look afresh at life and at the world around you. Perhaps a chance to set yourself a resolution or two – even though for most of us, these will have gone out the window before the Christmas decorations come down. For the amateur naturalist, a common resolution may be to learn more about those aspects of the natural world that you know little about. Which in my case is most of it – the more obvious omissions being things like mosses, lichens, most water fauna and the vast majority of the insect world. So where to start?
In contemplating this, I came to realise that one of the barriers to learning is language. Put simply, we learn to recognise things by putting names to them, thereby assigning them a memorable identity, after which they are familiar to us. The trouble is, a lot of species in my ‘problem groups’ – the insects, lichens and mosses of this world – just don’t have common names, instead possessing only a scientific name based upon Latin or ancient Greek. Scientific names are crucial as they follow a logical system of classification, and are universally acknowledged, wherever you are in the world. However, most of these names are as long as the proverbial docker’s tea break, and are at best unpronounceable, at worst comprehensively incomprehensible.
On the other hand, species that are more broadly familiar to people often have a suite of common names to choose from (as well as their ‘official’ scientific moniker, of course). While this can be confusing, it’s also a source of great delight, especially if you’re interested in etymology as well as entomology. Nowhere more so than right here in north-east Scotland, where we have not only the scientific and common English names on the go, but also Scots and Doric alternatives to boot. An eclectic mix.
As an unashamed bird-brain, my first examples of common species with multiple identities naturally come from the avian world. Take the humble Mallard, for instance. It’s a name that most folk will be familiar with, notwithstanding famous steam locomotives of old. But this most recognisable of ducks also carries the scientific name Anas platyrhynchos (which translates as ‘broad-snouted duck’), and the alternative English name of Wild Duck (refreshingly no-nonsense, this). And here in the north-east, the Mallard also goes by the name of Mossie-deuk, sometimes abbreviated simply to Mossie. Not to be confused with the biting insect to be found in the same habitat, which is surely spelt Mozzie… OK, time to move on.
No less familiar than the Mallard is the small garden bird which carries the scientific name Fringilla coelebs (translating as ‘bachelor finch’). While most of us know this species as the Chaffinch, just about every corner of the UK can lay claim to its own alternative name. A quick glance at my copy of ‘British Birds’ Eggs & Nests‘ by the Rev. J.C.Atkinson (published 1898; probably not available in many bookshops) reveals 14 alternatives: Spink, Pink, Twink, Shelly, Skelly, Shell-apple, Scobby, Shilfa, Buckfinch, Horsefinch, Copperfinch, Whitefinch, Beechfinch and Wet-bird. Spink is an interesting one, as here in the north-east, it’s actually used as an alternative name for the Primrose rather than the Chaffinch. Here you’re more likely to hear the diminutive Chaffie used for the bird instead. Confusing, huh? Perhaps those standard Latin scientific names weren’t such a daft idea after all.
This is the last bird one, I promise. Corvus cornix, to quote the scientific name, is widely known as the Hooded Crow. Up here in the north-east it’s often foreshortened to Hoodie, which makes a deal of sense, the bird’s black head and neck contrasting with its ash-grey body like some fearsome executioner’s hood. But in my previous place of residence, north Norfolk, the species carried the curious nickname Denchman. This is said to be a corruption of ‘Danishman’, the reason being that in times of old, the same north-east winds that bore Hooded Crows over the North Sea to Norfolk’s shores also brought Viking invaders in their longships. The most feared of these was King Harald of Denmark, leading to the Hooded Crow being christened ‘Harra the Denchman’ in the local tongue. How the name has persisted for so long is anybody’s guess. But it’s one that I still use every time I see a Hooded Crow out on the mussel-beds of the Ythan Estuary.
There are numerous examples in the plant kingdom that also demonstrate a diversity of regional names. Some I have mentioned in previous blog posts – e.g. Lotus corniculatus / Bird’s-foot Trefoil / Bacon-and-eggs / Craa’s-taes – depending on which name you prefer for this common and attractive flower.
Another very familiar plant with a slew of different names is Ulex europaeus – European Gorse to give it its full common name. Most of us know it simply as Gorse, though in southern England it’s known as Furze, and in Scotland widely referred to as Whins. And in our corner of Scotland, fed through a filter of Doric, this can be heard pronounced ‘Funs’, just to add to the confusion. Here on the Reserve, Gorse also gets called all kinds of names that I can’t reproduce here in print, owing to its vicious spines that embed themselves all-too-readily into fingers, hands and even toes when they find their way into your boots.
What scientists would term ‘invertebrates’, many folk would call ‘creepy crawlies’, and here in Doric country they may simply be referred to as ‘wee craiturs’. Like the aforementioned birds and plants, many invertebrates are a familiar, everyday presence in our lives, and as such, they too have collected their own regional, colloquial, affectionate or not-very-affectionate pseudonyms. Woodlice, for instance, have their ‘correct’ scientific and common English names: the one in the photo below, for example, is Phyloscia muscorum, the Common Striped Woodlouse. An alternative common name for this particular species is the Fast Woodlouse (well all things are relative, I suppose). But locals here often refer to these, and others of their ilk, as Slaters. And as a young child growing up in south-west England, I knew them as Choogy-pigs. To this day I have no idea why, but even so, it’s not the sort of name you forget.
I’ll finish up on a personal favourite. Earwigs are yet another common everyday invertebrate with multiple identities, but surely the best name is the home-grown one widely used in our corner of Scotland. After all, who doesn’t love a Hornie-gollach? Perhaps if all insect species had such appealing names, I’d have learnt to identify more of them by now.
Even in a short and superficial article like this one, it’s easy to see why we need the standard system of scientific names to create some sort of order from the chaos of regional, colloquial and informal names we use for our wildlife. But at the same time, this diversity of language is surely something to be celebrated. As regional cultures and dialects become increasingly and inevitably homogenised, I hope there’ll always be room for Hornie-gollachs as well as Earwigs in the world. Happy new year!