Naming the Nameless

The results of our competition to name England’s threatened species are stunning.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th July 2010

It’s the most successful exercise in crowd-sourcing I’ve ever seen. We asked our readers to solve a problem, and they’ve done far more than that: they have created something beautiful.

The problem is this: that it is hard to persuade people to care about something they can’t pronounce. English species are disappearing at the rate of two a year. But many are vanishing unnoticed and unmourned by almost everyone, partly because we have no cultural connection to them. Scientific names, which are given in Latin or ancient Greek, are essential to proper classification, but to most people they are cold, incomprehensible and offputting.

Common names are the point at which nature and culture intersect. They allow us to engage with animals and plants which, especially if they are small and unobstrusive, might otherwise be hard to connect with. As you can see from the roaring success of books like Flora Britannica, the nexus of nature and culture is a source of constant public fascination.

So, in a column in March, I suggested that Natural England should launch a public competition to name the nameless species in danger of extinction(1). It took the suggestion up and, working with the Guardian and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, drew up a list of ten threatened or endangered species with an identity problem.

The idea lit a fire in the public imagination. Though the timetable was very tight, we received over 3000 entries, and the standard was stunning. Judging the competition was very hard, as in every case there were at least half a dozen names that deserved to win. Not only were they practical and distinctive, many of them also captured the magic and mystery of England’s wildlife.

There was a tension between the aesthetic value of some of the entries and the need to choose names that would last: meaning that they were likely to be adopted by specialists in the field. One of the winners, for example, was the scabious cuckoo bee, which, while a good, solid, practical name – it’s a cuckoo bee which feeds from scabious flowers – was less imaginative than some of the alternatives. But the specialists on the panel felt that this one would stick, while, for example, the jester cuckoo bee or the red scrounger would not.

But in other cases we allowed ourselves to be carried away. All of us loved Mab’s lantern, which is now the name of a mysterious beetle with yellow spots like the distant glow of a lantern on its back. I fought for the sea piglet, which is a wildly inaccurate term for a little deepwater shrimp, but captures something about it which feels just right. It resonates with those other marine invertebrates with mammalian names: the sea mouse and the sea hare. No one was in dispute about the skeetle: a compact, whizzy little name which exactly matches the animal it describes.

As for the overall winner, I find I can’t get it out of my head. The beetle lives only at Windsor, eats the grubs of other beetles and has a thorax that looks like a heavy black hood. In just two words, the queen’s executioner captures its nature, appearance and place, and creates an air of malevolence that guarantees this name will stick(2).

The competition has been so successful that we’ve begun, tentatively, to discuss the idea of running it annually, asking people to name another ten species every year. Please tell us what you think.

As for me, there are now ten more British species I care about. I knew and thought little about Usnea florida, Haliclystus auricula or Megapenthus lugens. But the witch’s whiskers lichen, kaleidoscope jellyfish and queen’s executioner: those are worth fighting for.



2. You can read the full list of winners and runners-up here: