Taxonomy (from the Greek words taxus: arrangement and nomy: distribution), is the process of applying a scientific framework to the classification of organisms. Modern taxonomy is concerned primarily with arranging organisms in such a way that reflects underlying evolutionary relationships. Our modern taxonomic system stems from the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). By the 18th century, naturalists were traveling far and wide, often supported by wealthy patrons who expected in exchange for their charges to return with ever stranger beasts. The world was increasingly complex, filled with a seemingly endless menagerie of animals. It became essential to formalize a coherent classification system for arranging the 1000s of new organisms being discovered. Linnaeus’s system, published first as Systema Naturae in 1735, and revised over the next 33 years through 12 editions, classified 4,400 animals and 7,700 plants. It also helped dispel with some of the mystery in the natural order (Linnaeus included the “Animalia Paradoxa” – satyrs, unicorns, dragons, sirens, & other mythological creatures – in his compendium to illustrate that there was indeed order to the world).
One difficulty with taxonomy was that there were confusion in the usage of common names. Latin names were already in used, but they were often unwieldy and inconsistent across related taxa. Linnaeus was meticulously organized to manage the growing list of species. His system became increasingly organized as he added ranks to the binomials (this became the now familiar 7-rank system: King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup). Latin was the lingua franca of the scientific community, and had already been used by others to name organisms. Linnaeus (who would also come to be known by his Latin name) continued to use Latin, with each species given a scientific, or binomial name, appended with the initial of the person who first described the species. Humans became Homo sapiens L. (L. for Linnaeus), and this name was reserved for humans and humans alone. Common names were so fickle, and could change through time and across the land, but Linnaeus set forth strict rules to eliminate confusion. Once a species was named, its binomial was fixed in time. If, however, the organism was moved to a new genus, its generic name would be reassigned, but it would keep its specific epithet. In the last 250 years, we’ve updated his classification system (there’s now an International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, for example, and there are far more ranks that each species can be slotted into).
Because new Latin names were assigned to species as they were being described and classified, scientists could choose descriptive names with specific meanings. The new names referred to morphological features (morphonyms), people (eponyms), places (toponyms), relationships to other species (taxonyms), common names in other languages (autochthonyms), habitats (bionyms), behaviors (ergonyms), and food preferences (phagonyms). It’s important to keep this in mind, that scientific names are constructed and that they can be deciphered. I hope that this resource helps you to uncover the beauty (and often clunkyness) of our classification system and connects you to a long lineage of naturalists seeking to find order in the wild.