Misleadingly named animals

Via Kim Darnell on Facebook (a very long time ago), this poster:

Eight composite names — some N + N, some Adj + N. The question here is the semantic contribution of each of the parts. The poster deliberately disregards the fact that these are common names, not technical labels from biology; and it insists on treating these names as definitions, which is something no mere label can do. And it throws in some tongue-in-cheek remarks.

Technicalism. If you insist on understanding the head nouns as technical labels from zoology, then only the last of the eight names, Eastern kingbird, is subsective. The Eastern kingbird is indeed a bird. Otherwise:

The electric eel is not a “true eel” (in the Anguilliformes), but an electric fish, a knifefish (in the Gymnotiformes), more closely related to the catfish; it is the only species (Electrophorus electricus) in its genus.

The mountain goat is not a “true goat” (in the genus Capra), but a distinct creature (Oreamnos americanus) that’s the only species in its genus.

The maned wolf, the largest canid in South America, has markings resembling those of foxes, but it’s not a fox, nor is it a wolf, and it’s not closely related to other canids; Chrysocyon brachyurus is the only species in its genus.

The king cobra is not a member of the Naja genus (“true cobras”), which contains most cobra species; instead, Ophiophagus hannah is the sole member of its own genus.

The mantis shrimp are (mostly colorful) marine crustaceans in the order Stomatopoda, distinct from the other crustaceans called shrimp. Similarly, rock shrimp aren’t shrimp, but but merely shrimp-like, and hard like a rock; discussion on this blog here.

The horned toad (or horned frog or horny toad) is not an amphibian, like true toads and frogs, but instead is a lizard, making up the genus Phrynosoma of lizards. The popular names come from the lizard’s rounded body and blunt snout, which make it resemble a toad or frog (Phrynosoma literally means “toad-bodied”). (The poster also jokes on the sexual sense of horny.)

The mayfly is not a “true fly”, in the order Diptera, but an aquatic insect belonging to the order Ephemeroptera, related to dragonflies and damselflies. Compare the ladybug, not in the order Hemiptera or its suborder Heteroptera, embracing the “true bugs”; ladybugs are instead beetles, in the order Coleoptera.

The terminology “true fly” and “true bug” (etc.) here arises from the attitude that the naming practices of biologists are the only valid (true) naming schemes — what I’ll call technicalism. In the case of fly and bug, technicalism is remarkable from the historical point of view, since the specialized use of these nouns represents a decision to use perfectly ordinary vocabulary as technical terminology by drastically restricting its reference.

In my bedbug posting of 2/17/12 (bedbugs are “true bugs”), I quote the The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America:

Because of the aerial prowess of insects in general, a great many nonflies bear “fly” as part of the name, such as butterfly, firefly, stonefly, and mayfly.

Note “nonflies”.

(No one is saying that scientific naming practices aren’t very important in the appropriate context, but the technicalist attitude seems to be that it would be better if common names were simply abandoned in favor of the precision afforded by scientific categorization and the taxonomic vocabulary that accompanies it.)

Everyday categorization. I frequently post about everyday schemes of categorization in various domains. Among my points: everyday (conceptual) categories fairly often don’t have corresponding names in ordinary language; and there is considerable variation from person to person both in the categories and in the labels.

These points remain even in conceptual domains when there are scientific schemes of categorization and naming, as in the case of organisms.

I don’t know if there any people who lump all flying insects into a single category, but I suspect there are. If there are, they almost surely treat houseflies, horseflies, etc. (Diptera, or “true flies”) as privileged members of the category, since these are the insects that we use the plain noun fly for (There’s a fly in the room.). For bug, there is certainly an everyday category, but I can’t imagine that someone who’s not trained to some degree in scientific terminology would treat stinkbugs, bedbugs, and other Hemiptera as privileged members of the category.

But there are more subtle puzzles. Many of the “misleadingly named” animals in the poster above are taxonomic outliers with substantial resemblances (in physical appearance, behavior, whatever) to creatures in much larger taxa. You could then lump an outlier into an everyday category with these other creatures — for instance, to think of electric eels and “true eels” as constituting an everyday category, called eels — and then electric eel would be subsective (and not a misleading name at all). I am myself very much inclined to think this way in this case.

On the other hand, you could distinguish two everyday categories here, in which case electric eel would be non-subsective; it would be a resembloid composite. No doubt there are people who think this way in this case.

My inclination is to think of mountain goats as goats and king cobras as cobras, but maned wolves as merely wolf-like, mantis shrimp as merely shrimp-like, and horny toads as merely toad-like. But I expect there to be considerable variation on these points.

Entertaining examples from my “Snakes, worms, fish, clams, slugs” posting of 8/5/12penis snake is non-subsective — the creature is clearly an amphibian, not a snake, though it resembles a snake — compared with penis worm, which is straightforwardly subsective. (What they share is that both resemble penises.) And then more recently, the naked mole ratmole rat is non-subsective — the creature is not a rat, but it does resemble a rat to some degree — and it also resembles a mole.

Relation of head to modifier. So much (for now) for the role of the head Ns. Now we’ve gotten into the question of the relation between head and modifier (the first word of the composite). It should be clear from the examples so far that for initial N, resemblance of the referent of the head to the referent of the modifier is a very common relation: resembloid modification.

Mole rat is doubly resembloid: the creature physically resembles both a rat and a mole, and resembles a mole in mode of living as well. And a rock shrimp resembles a shrimp physically and (a) rock in being very hard. Mantis shrimp is also doubly resembloid: the creature is not a shrimp, but looks like one, and it resembles a mantis in having (powerful) mantis-like claws. Peacock mantis shrimp is triply resembloid, with the resemblances of mantis shrimp plus the resemblance of this colorful creature to a showy peacock.

Even king cobra and kingbird have resembloid modification. The king cobra is the world’s longest venomous snake, that is, it’s the top “cobra”, and it preys on other snakes. And kingbirds are “take-charge” birds, aggressively defending their territories, even against much larger birds (like hawks).

Labels and definitions. Location in space or time is another recurrent relation between head and modifier (of either type): mountain goat, mayfly, Eastern kingbird, and (from outside the world of animals) trouser snake ‘penis’ (snake-like thing located in trousers).

But you’ll see from the comments on the poster that, in general, it takes these locations to be definitional: mayfly is misleading because the creatures are active though the spring and summer, not just in May; and Eastern kingbird is misleading because it’s found in the West as well as the East.

But as I shout every so often,


A label is just a conventional hook for a referent, not a set of defining conditions (necessary, sufficient, or both) for the referent.

Mayflies. Mayflies are, first of all, literally ephemeral. The question is when they emerge to lead their brief lives. The Wikipedia article tells us that they “‘hatch’ (emerge as adults) in spring, not necessarily in May, in enormous numbers”. But May is in the right time period and will do to locate the insect via its season.

Eastern kingbirds. This one’s more complicated, because there’s a Western kingbird as well as an Eastern one (both are aggressive). They are clearly different species. The Eastern kingbird breeds in open areas throughout North America, while the Western kingbird breeds in open areas in Western North America. All that the names have to do is provide a linguistic distinction to go along with the species distinction; this differentiation doesn’t even have to make any sense. Western kingbird does provide a bit of information, and then Eastern kingbird tells us it’s a different species. But Smith’s kingbird and Jones’s kingbird would have done just as well, even if we have no clue as to who Smith and Jones might be. (Why should we care?)


4 Responses to “Misleadingly named animals”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Wells on Facebook:

    You could add “ladybird”, the BrE name for what AmE calls “ladybug” — not a bird.

    And nothing to do with being a lady. (That’s from Our Lady — the Virgin Mary.)
    The poster mostly picks on taxonomically marginal creatures, named through resemblance. The full range of animal names is packed with oddities.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Aaron Broadwell on Facebook:

    A French example: chauve-souris ‘bat’. (Bald mouse) But it’s not bald and not a mouse.

    An old favorite of mine. Yes, resembloid, but …

  3. rhdraney Says:

    The jackrabbit is a hare, not a rabbit, while the Belgian hare is a rabbit, not a hare.

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