cf./aff. - indeterminate determinations, certain uncertainties...

Jim Croft jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Thu Nov 11 23:35:13 CST 1993

I have been following this discussion with quite a bit of amused
interest, trying not to say something, but what the hell - there is
nothing on television tonight...

Isn't strange that the most peripheral things to our art generate the
most discussion, whether it is abbreviated author names or codified
expressions of limited knowledge (that sounds better than 'marks of

In our database design deliberations we discussed the arcane runes that
taxonomists feel compelled to inscribe on determinavit slips in what
appears to be a strict formal ritual, but we could not discern any
consistent difference in practice in the use of ?, cf. or aff.  The
amount of effort that went into any ofthese pronouncements on small
slips of paper varied from months of painstaking analysis and phylgenetic
reconstruction to a 5-second inspection with a hand-lens at 20 paces.
They could mean anything from 'I know all there is to know about this
specimen and the group to which it belongs and if I have to place it
with or near something in the herbarium it is with this species, but I
could not be bothered describing it as a new taxon just now', to
'I haven't a clue what I am looking at but this seems like a plausible
name but I do not want to be held accountable for it'.

Accordingly we decided to transliterate all these to a single qualifier
flag: '?',  which seemed to have just right nuance of doubt.  This
logical and sane unilateral decision was greated with howls of derision
by real taxonomists who insisted that *their* cf/aff had real, distinct
and immutable meaning and it was just other taxonomists who did not know
what they were talking about.  Discretion seemed advisable, so we
expanded the flag to include all three as they appeared on the
determinavit slip and let the readers interpret it as they will.

We did managed to convince people that this cf/aff thing was an
attribute of the identification and quite distinct from
agg./ which is an attribute of the taxon and that
neither were an attribute of the name.  (Actually I am not really sure
they understood or believed this...)

[ BTW, I am not at all pleased with John McNiell from raising this horrible
thing we had overlooked - {binomial} var. as distinct from the rank of
varietas.  This is the sort of ill-defined and nebulous thing that
gives taxonomy a bad name.  It does not fit in our (or anyone else's
I have seen) taxonomic information design at all.  Our solution will be
not to tell anyone about it in the hope that it just goes away. ]

Back to the cf/aff thing.  The argument we are being confronted with now
concerns the rank or position in the name string this uncertainty flag
if to be applied.  To simplify the database (and in my opinion, to reflect
reality) we want to ally it to the lowest level of the name in the
determination: to the family or genus if that is far as you could get,
or to the variety or forma if that was appropriate.  However, it is
being argued that the cf/aff should be able to applied at levels above
the lowest rank.  Thus we should allow such trivial nonsense as
'cf. Eucalyptus alba' which I guess could be interpreted as 'I do not
really know what this is - it might be a eucalypt, or it might not, but
it most likely is - in any case, if it is a eucalypt, and it may not be,
then it is definitely Eucalyptus alba'!  Almost 2.5 centuries since
Linnaeus and we are doing this sort of thing.  You have got to be


Jim Croft           [Herbarium CBG]               internet: jrc at
Australian National Botanic Gardens                  voice:  +61-6-2509 490
GPO Box 1777, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA            fax:  +61-6-2509 599
______Biodiversity Directorate, Australian Nature Conservation Agency______

More information about the Taxacom mailing list