[Taxacom] Goddess Changes Sex, or the Gender Game

John Grehan calabar.john at gmail.com
Sat Oct 20 10:23:04 CDT 2018

In reference to some brief discussion of gender rules in taxonomy I have
appended below the text from an article on the subject that may be of
passing interest. First published just over 50 years ago and seems to be
still relevant today. Any mistyping my responsibility.

John Grehan

Goddess Changes Sex, or the Gender Game

John R. G. Turner

Systematic Zoology, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 349-350

In his recent criticism of the gender rule in zoological nomenclature,
Moore (1966) discusses the difficulty of deciding on the gender of a genus:
he does not mention a problem that I have found most teasing – discovering
whether a specific name is substantive, and therefore invariant, or
adjectival, and therefore with a variable ending. It may be reasonable to
expect zoologists to manage  -*us, -a, -um* endings and the more awake ones
to manage  *-is, -is, -e,* but they can hardly be expected to have an
extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek adjectives, much less of classical
mythology. The sneaking pleasure that I, and perhaps others, derive from
exercising scholastic pedantry, thereby feeling in touch with the great
stream of Western Culture, hardly compensates for the time spent hunting
through Latin and Greek dictionaries.

In working on the evolution of the South American butterfly genus
*Heliconius* (e.g. Turner, 1965) I have had to sort out some of its very
tangled systematics and nomenclature. The trouble is that there is a
tradition going right back to Linnaeus of giving the species the names of
nymphs and muses (*Heliconius* = dweller on Mount Helicon), so that one has
a masculine genus with a feminine species; moreover, there was at one time
a feminine genus *Heliconia*, now in synonymy, with which some of the
adjectival names agreed. As classical names ran out, systematists named the
butterflies after their wives, rivers with classical-sounding names, saints
and opera-heroines; one needs to know not only mythology, but biogeography,
geography, hagiography, and musicology.

Understandably, systematists have changed endings that should have
remained, and unable to master the many names of Venus and all the other
ladies, have come up with *cytherus, veustus *(“Scandal in temple. Vestal
Virgins say *We are just good friends*”), *eulalius, egerius, antigonus,
lucius* and so on. Now these are deliberate emendations, and under the *Code
*are strictly junior synonyms, to be taken into account in future
revisions. In addition to these very clear cases, there are some that are
almost impossible to decide, at least without consulting a classicist. Did
Linnaeus intend *charitonia*, frequently rendered *charitonius* (from
*Charites*, the Graces), to be an artificial noun or an adjective, and if
the latter, why did he not make it agree with its genus (*Papilio* at that
time)? Did Cramer intend *numata* to be some obscure nymph (an appellation
of Egeria perhaps, who taught the mythical Numa), or did he just mis-spell
*nummata* (=wealthy); and again, why did it not agree? (See also Turner,

The gender rule not only promotes instability of names which are
adjectival, it wastes much time in deciding difficult cases, and when a
hard-worked zoologist does not notice that the name is substantive, results
in an unnecessary synonym. Surely, the only sensible thing to do is retain
the original spelling of all names (Barring misprints), even as far as the

John R.G. Turner
Department of Biology
University of York,
York, England

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