Sunday, 16 August 2015

A bummer of a scientific name

Welcome to the first post of a new blog. Actually, it's not that new. I started the Wild Side Guide blog ages ago. I started it in the sense that I hit 'create new blog' and gave it a name, but then I didn't post anything in it. This was because I had put no thought whatsoever into what sort of stuff I wanted to write in it. I already had a blog (The Wild Side) for documenting my wildlife sightings and posting my photos, so what should go in the new blog? I didn't really know, so I just ignored it, for about a year. Or two.

Then on Thursday night I found something on Wikipedia that inspired me. It was this.

I was so delighted by my discovery that I immediately posted a link on Facebook, and Twitter, and emailed the link to other friends who don't do Facebook or Twitter, because that's the kind of mature, sensible person I am. Then I realised just posting the link everywhere I could think of wasn't enough. I wanted to say more.

Monarchidae is a large family of passerine birds, bringing together the best part of 150 species. None occur in Britain or anywhere near Britain - they live in Africa and southern Asia, across to Australasia. Many are colourful and striking birds. I've seen a couple of species in Sri Lanka, including the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, which is an absurdly beautiful and mad-looking long-tailed thing with a crest. But I know almost nothing about them, and I need to change that because I'm going to be writing (a little) about them for a project soon. Hence my Wikipedia wanderings. The family contains about 17 genera, which mostly have normalish names like Monarchia, Myiagra, Trochocercus, Mayrornis. And then there's the other one. The one called Arses.

As rude words go, 'arse' is a pretty tame one, but certainly ruder than 'bum' or 'butt'. It's also one of those very satisfying words that is much better than its American equivalent (though apparently the two have quite different origins). Why be an ass when you can be an arse? All in all, I'm a fan. As I said to a friend just the other day, calling someone a 'silly arse' is one of my favourite reprimands and is about as insulting as I ever get. BUT I was very surprised (as well as deeply amused) to find that Arses is an actual, real scientific name for a genus of birds. Knowing what everyone says about Wikipedia, I even cross-checked several other less readily editable sources. But it's really real.

We must presume that René Primevère Lesson, who named the genus sometime in the 19th century, did not know that 'arses' was or would become a rather coarse English word for 'bottoms'. 'Arse' apparently comes either from ærs (Old English) or orros (Greek), both words for 'tail' or 'rump', and our René was French. Maybe it was a typo, or the 19th-century equivalent of a typo (a write-o?) and he meant Arsis. That's a proper Latin word - a 'metrical term indicating the raising of voice on an emphatic syllable' according to the dictionary - sounds like it could describe a bird's call. Or maybe he named the genus after his pal Pierre Etienne Arses. (Don't cross-check that, I made him up.) Who knows? (Not me. And I did try to find out.) It's probably not even pronounced 'arses' but 'ar-SEES'.

But, but. You would not find a genus of monarch-flycatchers called Fuckers. You just wouldn't, even if the name had been given centuries ago, was pronounced 'foo-CHAAS', and was derived from the Latin 'fuche' meaning 'inoffensive little flycatcher'. (Also made up.) None of that would matter, the genus would have been renamed.

This reminds me of my days at Birdwatch magazine. Like other publications, Birdwatch has a house style, but things were not quite clear-cut when it came to naughty words - clearly there could be no effing but I wasn't so sure about the blinding. Then I wrote a piece for the mag in which I used the word 'arse' (as part of quoted speech), and the editor passed it as fine. A few months later, another writer submitted a piece that included the word 'bollocks' (also in quoted speech) - and this time the editor changed it to something milder. So that was where the line was drawn - somewhere between 'arse' and 'bollocks'. And perhaps that line is universal in ornithology. Arses are just about A-OK.

Anyway, the important point of all this is that I've decided what the Wild Side Guide should be for - random wildlife-related and perhaps slightly sweary wafflings when I haven't been out looking at any actual wildlife for a while. I hope you enjoy it. And here's a photo from Wiki of the very beautiful Frill-necked Monarch, Arses lorealis. Cute little fucker, isn't it.


  1. Arses, fucker, next time we meet I will wash your moutn out with soap young lady.

  2. Hahahaha, stop, please, I can't take anymore....! do I subscribe?

  3. I'll pop in from time to time Marianne. I'll link you to my blog.

  4. In a similar vein Marianne, I believe that 'Wheatear' has possibly evolved from its older name of White Arse! Seems perfectly feasible to me and wouldn't it be interesting if it was resurrected. Who would be first to tweet something along the lines of "Just seen a stunning White Arse on Leysdown beach". On second thoughts maybe not!
    Looking forward to the next post.

  5. Thank you for all the comments, folks! I am thinking over what to talk about next. Phil, you're right re Wheatear, it is a corruption (or perhaps 'un-corruption') of 'white arse' and nothing to do with ears of wheat, and yes, probably best to avoid mentions of white arses on nudist beaches...!