The Aurelian was having a conversation about long-tailed blues. There were a few minutes of discussion at cross purposes before he realised the problem.

The Aurelian was talking about this butterfly:

His interlocutor thought he was talking about this one:

There is of course, no excuse. The great Carl Linnaeus sought to spare us this confusion by first classifying, and then assigning unique names to all organisms. In this case, Lampides boeticus and Cheritra freja would have made it abundantly clear which of the blues we were discussing.

Carl Linnaeus

Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature has come to stick, and with it the rather strange melange of ostensibly Latin terms with obvious Greek references. In a rather nice twist, the type specimen for the species Homo sapiens happens to be the remains of Linnaeus, since the sole human specimen that he is known to have examined is himself.

For the 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758 he had classified 4400 species of animals and 7700 species of plants. By now, his rooms were filled with specimens sent to him from around the world, and to keep track he invented the index card system. This 10th edition represented the start of the binomial system, deemed to have been instituted on January 1st of that year. All names that been used before that date then automatically became obsolete.

Turning his attention to insects, he first sought a definition:

Insecta: A very numerous and various class consisting of small animals, breathing through lateral spiracles, armed on all sides with a bony skin, or covered with hair; furnished with many feet, and moveable antennae (or horns), which project from the head, and are the probable instruments of sensation. Linnaeus

When it comes to butterflies, Linnaeus described 305 taxa under the name Papilio. Many of his type specimens still exist, principally in the Linnean Society collection in London, or in the Zoological Museum of the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

Linnaeus used classical mythology as his source for the names of individual species – one series was what he described as the Equites, or knights, which were divided into the Equites Trojani (Trojan Army) or the Equites Achivi (Achaean army), combatants in the Trojan War. Thus we have Papilio priamus, Papilio hector, Papilio paris and Papilio polytes as part of the Equites Trojani, and Papilio helena, Papilio menelaus and Papilio ulysses for the Achaeni.

Papilio paris
Papilio ulysses

All well and good, and we’re grateful for his guidance in sorting this out for us, but unfortunately his system is not immune from subsequent tinkering, albeit in a good cause. Spare a thought for those who in recent years have had to wrestle with Maculinea, Glaucopsyche and Phengaris for arion, while the non-scientific among us have never wavered from the simple and epithetical name, Large Blue.

Maculinea, Phengaris or Glaucopsyche arion? Large Blue

Not all insects are so lucky. Here are the many labels just one unfortunate British species had to endure before ending up with the designation we recognise today:

  • Our Marsh Fritillary (Petiver, 1699)
  • Mr Dandridge’s March Fritillary (Petiver, 1704)
  • The Grizzled Butterfly (Wilkes, 1747-49)
  • The Brown March Fritillary (Berkenhout, 1769)
  • The Grizzle (Harris, 1776) The Gristle (Berkenhout, 1769)
  • The Spotted Skipper (Lewin, 1795)
  • The Mallow (Donovan, 1813)
  • The Mallow Skipper (Samouelle, 1819)
  • The Grizzled Skipper (Jermyn, 1824; and all subsequent authors)

Linnaeus would have had none of this. Back in 1758 he settled on Pyrgus malvae, and that’s what it has remained ever since. 

Pyrgus malvae, Grizzled Skipper