Sunday, May 23, 2010

`Our Knowledge of Things Would Perish'

Today we celebrate the 303rd birthday of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, father of taxonomy and the scientist most responsible for devising binomial nomenclature, the lingua franca, or lingua Latina, of modern biology. Appropriately for a man whose legacy is as much linguistic as scientific, there’s a story behind his name. Here’s how Heinz Goerke tells it in Linnaeus (1973, translated from the German by Denver Lindley):

“Nils, the father [of the future botanist, and a minister], was remarkably sensitive to the beauties of nature, especially of vegetation. The name Linnaeus, which he adopted when he began his theological studies, is symbolic of this. A tall linden tree that stood close to his father farmhouse prompted him to call himself Linnaeus, from the tree’s Swedish name, lind. A generation earlier, according to tradition, the same tree had inspired one of his mother’s brothers to choose the family name Tiliander, from the Latin name [tilia] for the linden tree.”

Thoreau approved of the custom, as he indicates in his journal entry for Nov. 15, 1851:

“I am pleased to read in Stoever’s Life of Linnaeus (Trapp’s translation) that his father, being the first learned man of his family, changed his family name and borrowed that of Linnaeus (Linden-tree-man) from a lofty linden tree which stood near his native place,--`a custom,’ he says, `not unfrequent in Sweden, to take fresh appellations from natural objects.’ What more fit than that the advent of a new man into a family should acquire for it, and transmit to his posterity, a new patronymic? Such a custom suggests, if it does not argue, an unabated vigor in the race, relating it to those primitive times when men did, indeed, acquire a name as memorable and distinct as their characters.”

On July 1, 2000, I planted a cherry laurel tree (Prunus laurocerasus) in front of our house, where two lindens already grew, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. My middle son was born that day and laurel suggests victory and Stan Laurel, my favorite actor. The fruit is inedible but the blossoms are lovely and I’ve always admired the smooth, reddish bark. Had my son been born female we might have named him Cherry. Nearby I planted a rose for my wife. My mother’s middle name was Rose and the cherry is a member of the Rosaceae or rose family. “Kurp” is a Polish name, shortened from Kurpiewski, and in Latvian means, pleasingly, “whither” (As when Hamlet asks: “Whither wilt thou lead me?") Linnaeus wrote: “nomina si pereunt, perit et cognitio rereum” [“Without names, our knowledge of things would perish.”]

1 comment:

jeff mauvais said...

My surname never fails to elicit a marked response in the Francophone world: laughter in Quebec, arched eyebrows in Paris, averted gazes in West Africa. At such times, I wonder which unfortunate ancestor was first burdened with this label -- and why?