What’s in a Name?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

                                                Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

We called them ‘doodle bugs,’ but a girl I knew called them ‘rolly-pollys.’ When in college, I learned they were actually ‘wood lice’ or the singular, ‘woodlouse.’ Wikipedia lists about fifty other names for these guys, not including the myriad Latin names. They would crawl over your hand with a tiny tickle, and roll into a ball if you touched them.

As kids (and even still), my brother and I took pride in knowing the names of lots of creatures, particularly the strange and exotic beasts of the far-flung jungles and seas that we saw in National Geographic or Tarzan movies. However, I never quite learned the Latin names, and mostly didn’t care to.

My great-aunt was a botanist and naturalist. When my dad was a kid, she turned him on to nature. They wandered around Texas looking at plants, which she painted and eventually published in a book. Of course, she was big on taxonomy, which my dad learned, but he actually preferred the common names. He was interested in all of nature, and he passed that interest on to his kids.

We did a lot of hunting, mostly birds. He taught us that there were two kinds of creatures — those that were good to eat and those that weren’t. We could hunt or fish any that were good to eat (and eat them), but killing something that wasn’t edible, or something that was edible and then not eating it, was frowned upon. In this process, we learned the common names of ‘good’ ducks — mallards (green-heads), pintails, redheads, canvasbacks (cans), and more — and ‘bad’ ducks, like shovelers, coots and other mud eaters. We got pretty good at bird identification, and that led to a greater appreciation for detail in other aspects of nature.

I never got into the Latin names, though. Over time, I have gradually picked up some Latin words, just as I have learned a little Spanish and French. I have spoken Texas English much of my life. My first wife, an English teacher, spent much time correcting my poor speaking habits. I probably backslid some during my five years in Oklahoma, and certainly during the one year in Georgia.

I still enjoy the variety of words that are used in different places for the identical thing. Of course, you expect different names in different languages, but I’m entranced by the variety of names within the same language. Skunk or polecat? Puma, Cougar, or Mountain Lion? Wildebeest or Gnu? Horny toads or horned frogs? The names vary in different places due to different influences, and the most commonly used are usually the most interesting.

It may be the same for people. I know that it’s often easier for me to remember someone’s exotic or unusual name than a plain one, but that doesn’t make them interesting. We seldom classify people as edible or inedible, but if we did it wouldn’t be based on their name or their looks. Is Billy Bob more interesting than William Robert? Meg or Margaret? Chip, Chuck or Charles? White, black or brown?

The name doesn’t define the value of the flower, animal, or the person. Its what’s inside — their nature — that counts.

“A rose by any name would smell as sweet,

(Though I smell not rose, but stinky feet.)”

                                                ~ Anonymous Children’s Rhyme

Additional information:

Eula Whitehouse, Texas Wildflowers in Natural Colors, Dallas County Audubon Society, 1936

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