By Charlotte Owen
Nomenclature is the science of naming, with rules and systems for organising species and giving each one an official two-part title. But there is also an art to the naming of things and often a sense of magic, especially when it comes to common names. These are bestowed by everyday people with no rulebook in sight, and are often steeped in folklore.
Many common names are descriptive, based simply on appearance or behaviour: the Orange-tip butterfly and Snakelocks Anemone, Yellow Rattle and Turnstone. Others are more fanciful, like Enchanter’s Nightshade, Forget-me-not and Painted Lady. Too many are long forgotten, like stumpy toddy (Wren), riphook (Hobby) and pickcheese (Blue Tit).
King Alfred’s cakes are the round, black fungi seen clinging to tree branches, and they are named after the exploits of Alfred the Great. Having fled a lost battle with the Danes, he sought refuge in a woodcutter’s hut where he was promised food and a bed if he tended the cakes cooking on the hearth. Whether King Alfred simply nodded off or was distracted by battle plans, he let the cakes burn to a crisp and the fungi do resemble cracked, burned buns.
Some species are granted less flattering names. The Lousy Watchman is a species of dor beetle, a large, lumbering lover of dung. It’s a noisy flier, and dor is an old word for drone, but it’s also particularly susceptible to mites. Dor beetles often carry multiple uninvited and unseen passengers on their belly, hence the lousy watchman nickname. They’re also attracted to light, so would often be seen bumbling into the glow of a night watchman’s lamp.
Some of the most fascinating names link back to the early herbalists, who valued Coughwort, Goutweed and Feverfew for obvious reasons. Dyers Greenweed, Soapwort and Fleabane also had practical uses, while Beggar’s Buttons (the sticky burrs of burdock) and Robin-run-the-hedge (cleavers) were better for practical jokes.