When biologists play at grammar

A couple of weeks ago, I got the following question from Craig Sommers: “I recently received a comment from a Fish & Wildlife Service biologist who said that ‘garter snake’ is now one word for all common names. True?”

As I wrote back, the answer is a bit complicated, but his question reminded me that I’ve been thinking about this question for several years now. It’s a really arcane and insignificant question: whether snake names are one word or two — i.e., “garter snake” or “gartersnake.”

This little essay has been gestating in my mind for several years, but I’ve been putting it off because I didn’t think I knew my grammar enough to write with any authority. In the end, though, I figure it’s worthwhile — inasmuch as this whole subject is worthwhile, which is kind of debateable — to put out what I know and what I think, and leave the corrections to another time.

Where is this movement to merge two words into one coming from? From what I’ve been able to gather, it’s coming from biologists. Fortunately, they’re willing to explain the change at some length. Harry Greene, in his excellent book, Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, explains his method for combining words in the first chapter, to get it (and other taxonomic questions) out of the way before getting into the meat of the subject:

In the interest of compactness, and with “rattlesnake” as a model, I combine words for groups of species (e.g. “seakraits” [Laticauda]), as opposed to single species (e.g., “Gopher Snake” [Pituophis catenifer]), but only when the root is one syllable with five or fewer letter and the modifier has no more than two syllables and six letters (e.g. “coralsnakes” versus “calico snakes” [Oxyrhopus]). (p. 13)

So, for example,

  • Ratsnake, but Corn Snake
  • Pinesnake, but Gopher Snake
  • Watersnake, but Queen Snake

The other source I’ve found is the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles’s Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico, with Comments Regarding Confidence in Our Understanding (SSAR Circular No. 29, 2000). It’s one of two rival lists of standard and scientific names of North American herps — the other is Joe Collins’s. The SSAR list follows Greene but goes further:

A group name consisting of two words should generally be spelled as one word except when: (1) It may be spelled as two words with a hyphen where, and only where, the two words have been in general use. (2) The hyphen may be omitted in cases where it would be inappropriate for a special reason. (p. 4)

In other words, combine words everywhere except where it would look too weird to do so.

Beyond my suspicion that they’re just trying to make it easier for themselves, these biologists are motivated by a desire for consistency. From the SSAR list:

[T]he formation of Standard English names for reptiles and amphibians has been without guidelines and the result has been an inconsistent use of names. For example, compare the Black-collared Lizard and the White-lipped Frog with the Blackmask Racer and the Blackhead Snake. Or compare rattlesnake with water snake and treefrog with chorus frog. (p. 2)

I’ve also heard that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources is combining all names so that they don’t have to explain why they spell “rattlesnake” one way but “rat snake” the other.

But the consistency sought is on the one hand taxonomic and on the other hand superficial, rather than grammatical.

In Greene’s system, in order to know how to spell the English common name of a snake species, you have to know its taxonomic relationships with other snakes. And if the taxonomy changes, as it frequently does — systematists love to mess around with Linnean binomials, even if they prefer phylogenetic classification — then the space may come out or go back in as needed. Under Greene’s system, if Corn Snakes were for some reason given their own genus, we would have to start calling them cornsnakes rather than Corn Snakes. Far from promoting consistency, we may end up with chaos in common names if common names are derived from current taxonomy.

One is quickly reminded of Emerson’s aphorism: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And, ironically, this system, designed for consistency’s sake, is not consistently applied. Greene and the SSAR list spell “milksnake” as one word, even though it’s only a single species, Lampropeltis triangulum. Ditto for “scarletsnakes” (Cemophora coccinea) and “swampsnakes” (Seminatrix pygaea). Simplicity trumps taxonomy.

The second problem I have is more philosophical: that there’s a problem when biologists try to create rules of grammar. For one thing, they don’t own the names — it’s not just biologists who write about wildlife. If the public understands a group of snakes are called “garter snakes” — let’s leave aside for the moment corruptions like “garden snakes” and “gardener snakes” — then it’s presumptuous to have everyone else change their spellings for reasons that matter only to specialists.

In addition, biologists simply aren’t qualified to make the call. Now I’ve worked as a copyeditor and have dealt with questions like this on a professional basis — for example, whether it’s “e-mail” or “email” — and I understand that consistency does matter, but only internally: for example, if I’m going to decide that I will use “e-mail” rather than “email,” I should do so consistently; it does not mean that one or the other is necessarily wrong. On the other hand, I don’t have a solid enough grounding in grammatical rules to be certain of this, or to speak with any authority, so what follows is somewhat intuitive on my part.

The first question to ask is why the purported inconsistencies that Greene et al. are trying to fix exist in the first place. In the original standard list, which was apparently published in Copeia in 1956, there were a limited number of snake common names that were spelled as one word. The other standard list of North American herps, Collins’s (which I disagree with for its systematics, but that’s another issue), maintains these spellings. Here are all the one-word snake names:

  • Bullsnake
  • Kingsnake
  • Rattlesnake
  • Whipsnake

(In common parlance, blacksnake is also spelled as one word, but when common names were standardized blacksnake was left behind — split between Black Rat Snake and Black Racer.)

When I first discovered this a few years ago, I tried to figure out why these names would be all one word, but other names not. I guessed — and it remains to see whether I guessed correctly — that the names were one word for grammatical reasons, rather than taxonomic ones. (And grammatical rules are never consistent, naturally.) So instead of looking at the genera and species, I looked at the prefixes.

Bull- and king- are used in single-word compound names elsewhere. In addition to bullsnake, you have examples such as bullfrog, bulldog, bullwhip, and, of course, bullshit. In each of these contexts, the bull- prefix is a descriptor of size and burliness, not a metaphor for male cattle. (As a result, translating bullsnake into French as serpent-taureau is painfully wrong.) And I suspect that kingsnake is one word for the same reasons that kingfisher is one word.

Rattlesnake and whipsnake aren’t just group names for identifiable genera (Crotalus and Sistrurus for rattlesnakes, Masticophis for whipsnakes); they’re also physical descriptors: rattlesnakes have rattles, whipsnakes are fast and extraordinarily thin. (Whipsnakes are also biting fiends, but that’s a different question.)

What I think I’m trying to grasp at is that there is a difference between descriptors that are metaphorical and descriptors that aren’t: a garter snake resembles a garter, but a horsefly does not resemble a horse — horse is just another superlative prefix (e.g. horseradish; horseshit is not necessarily horse shit). A blind snake is literally that; gopher snakes, rat snakes and crayfish snakes are named for their diet — but none of these physically describe the snake in a way that they are immediately differentiated from other snakes.

Never mind the taxonomy: rattlesnakes and whipsnakes look physically different from other snakes the way that cobras do; language, rather than taxonomy, puts them in a different class. Bullsnakes stand out in their region for their size; kingsnakes for their snake-eating tendencies. As such, they get names as distinct as boa, cobra or anaconda: whipsnake, in other words, is as different from snake as python is.

There’s something to this, but I’m not exactly sure what it is, or whether I’ve managed to put my thumb on it. I’d love to know whether I’m onto something or merely off my nut.