By Mark Carnall, on 10 June 2011
Last week a visitor asked whether starfish should be called starfish or sea stars. At the Grant Museum our asteroideans are labeled as starfish. Apparently, the confusing name is causing children and adults to identify starfish as fish rather than as echinoderms. Every now and then we get similar enquiries from visitors and students that arise when scientific pedantry meets commonly used names. For another example see our colleague from the Horniman Museum, Paolo Viscardi, clarify for once and for all that Apes are Monkeys, so deal with it.
So starfish or sea stars? Starfish are called sea stars or stars of the sea in many European languages including Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Swedish. Starfish are a group of animals that make up the phylum echinodermata and their extant relatives are all named after what they look like; sea cucumbers, sea lilies and sea urchins (urchin from the Middle English meaning hedgehog). Pedants would point out that these names are technically incorrect too but I guess the problem with starfish is that you’re likely to find starfish in the same habitat as fish fish, whereas it would indeed be a lost cucumber or street child found alongside sea cucumbers or sea urchins. By the same token jellyfish, silverfish and crayfish aren’t fish either. Other names are misleading, flying lemurs don’t fly and aren’t lemurs, sea spiders aren’t spiders and horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs. Perhaps we should rename all of those too. I’ve no idea how the continent produces any competent zoologists at all because many animal names are very descriptive in other languages with fewer discrete names for animals. In Dutch for example, a coypu is called a beaver-rat, hippopotamuses are called Nile-horse and bats are called flying mice. English common names also create problems when there’s more than one of the thing you are wanting to describe. Should it be Portugese men-of-war or Portugese man-of-wars? Octopuses, octopi or octopodes? Platypuses, platypus or platypi?
Some scientists might call for getting rid of common names altogether. Bug is often used to describe a whole host of creatures that aren’t true bugs, insects in the order hemiptera, even by the Natural History Museum it seems. The name minibeasts is also a polyphyletic group. However, scientific names often aren’t sacrosanct, with tens of millions of biological names scientists themselves occasionally slip in rude sounding words, names with humurous double meanings and even references to ex-girlfriends (the excellent Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature lists them all, my particular favourite is the species name for the blue whale which could mean muscular or little mouse).
As for sea stars vs starfish I think that ultimately, it doesn’t matter and in my mind pedantically correcting people on the technical names and nature for things is the worst kind of science communication. It is eltitist and a form of “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-I-know-something-that-you-don’t-know” that alienates people who are less well informed. This is the kind of gobbledygook and jargon that the plain english campaign is trying to eradicate. Does this mean that future generations will be brought up ignorant? Of course not but if I have ten minutes talking to a museum visitor about an object I’d prefer to use it talking about more interesting things than whether it is or isn’t called this or that when we both know the thing we’re talking about anyway.