Quite a lot of Latin binomials from different genera contain the same species name. For example, there are a number that reflect the physical properties of the species (Tables have the latin name, a translation, and the number of European species according to the European Nature Information System).

nigr[a|o|um]    black        545
minim[us|a]     small        325
alb[us|um|a]    white        264
maxim[us|a]     big          166

and some which reflect the way in which they become apparent to us humans

vulgar[is|e]    common       691
sativa          cultivated   70
domesticus      domesticated 19

as well as reduplication for particularly salient/familiar species (e.g. Gallus gallus, Mephitis mephitis)

So, I'm wondering why there are so many elegans (471 European species on the database). It's particularly widespread, but meaning "elegant" or "refined", it's a rather nondescript name to give. Maybe someone might describe a species like this if they were really running thin on defining characteristics, but if this is the reason, why would the name occur so often?

So I'm fairly sure I'm missing something important about how species get named. What is/was the reason for naming so many species "elegans"? Does it have perhaps have something to do with type species?

  • $\begingroup$ elegans -> handsome, fastidious (Latin). maybe neatness or clean as well. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 17:39

1 Answer 1

  1. Since "meaningfulness" is not listed among the requirements for new names, any author is free in his choice of name derivation. [There are nevertheless some natural restrictions, such that new names are to be treated as Latin irrespective of the etymology and should follow Latin grammar (with botanical nomenclature being much more meticulous in this respect).]

  2. There are indeed some cases when the name of the species may be meaningful for the purpose of the choice of type species (the "typicus/a/um" names and tautonomous names like "Glis glis"), but "elegans" doesn't belong here.

So, the high frequency of "elegans" has nothing to do with typification and reflects nothing else than the will of authors to reflect their emotions. One recurrent cause of "elegans"-names among paleontologists, for example, is good preservation of the respective fossil material. [By the way, there are even more emotionally loaded (but less frequent) names like "mirabilis/e" or "enigmatica/us/um".]

Since providing etymologies for names alongside formal descriptions of new species at a certain moment became an official recommendation, you can make your own collection of causes people provide to justify their choice of "elegans" as species names.

EDIT: I've just found this revelation: (Oxytomoides elegans, fossil bivalve) "Etymology. Elegans, Latin for choice or select, referring to what we regard as esthetically pleasing appearance of the species".

  • $\begingroup$ I've put your numbers into the table above. I was quite lazy and haphazard about searching for all genders, though I realise now that the database a handy regex option. Do you know an accessible source where the etymologies might be listed? $\endgroup$
    – Lucas
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ There is a very nice collection by Mark Isaac available here, but he is mainly interested in specially curious names - you will not find "elegans" there. In general, as said, it is now strongly recommended to provide etymologies in the original publications, so the some kind of semi-manual search is required. The relevant section is called "Etymology" or "Derivation of name", e.g. here. $\endgroup$
    – alephreish
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'd guess that elegans is mainly used as the common choice for "beautiful." $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 17:58

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