Aquatical Latin by TM Hayes
MARINE BIOLOGISTS occasionally take DIVER to task for rarely using scientific names and instead referring vaguely to damselfish or moray eels, which could cover a huge variety of different creatures.
Guilty as charged, but perhaps using common/ generic names makes for faster communication in cases where pinning down the exact identity of a fish or crustacean isn’t all-important.
Of course we recognise that taxonomy, the binomial system of using Latin or Greek names to indicate genus and species, is important.
Tim Hayes, the author of Aquatical Latin, uses the golden trevally to illustrate the potential for confusion: “Fishbase records 201 common names for this species (some of these are duplications), which is an impressive number of different names that breaks down into 151 distinct common names (some of which are close variations of each other), from 51 countries, in 55 different languages.
“A further problem with common names is that the same names are often in use describing species belonging to multiple unrelated genera, and even species belonging to the same genus, again magnifying the potential for confusion”. Call the golden trevally Gnathanodon speciosus, and a marine biologist will be left with no room for doubt.
Aquatical Latin looks at the etymology, or meaning, of the names of around 950 tropical fish.
Sticking with our golden trevally, we learn that gnathos is Greek for jaw, an means without and odon teeth, so this is a toothless jack. Speciosus means there is just one species in the genus.
As it happens small golden trevallies do have teeth, as Hayes points out, but they lose them as they grow, and resort to sucking in their prey.
The book wasn’t written for divers but for aquarists – Tim Hayes, a marine-aquarium writer, felt that while the plant world had its Botanical Latin, sea life had been ignored, and his new book is apparently the only etymological work on fishes.
It is marked Volume 1: Reef Fishes, so presumably more will follow.
Hayes is no dry academic, and has a very pleasant style. His introductory chapters are genuinely interesting if you don’t know much about marine-life classification systems, as I didn’t, but to look up those 950 fish you will need to know the scientific names.
So for divers, a well-researched and interesting if hardly indispensable reference book. Pogonicthys, the publisher’s name, seems to be Greek for bearded fish. Don’t ask me.
Review by Steve Weinman
Softback, 296pp, £14.99