The curious case of the gendered honorifics

The recent naming of a new species of beetle after Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg is very welcome. Thunberg is an impressive activist, an inspirational speaker, and is working hard to try to bring the world's blockhead leaders to their senses on the threats and challenges of global heating. This is no mean feat. And given that a rapidly warming Earth is undoubtedly the biggest threat to global biodiversity in our times, recognition of her efforts is well-deserved.

The impressive Greta Thunberg, addressing the United Nations

But there is one curious and striking aspect of her honorific. The beetle, an African ptiliid, has been named Nelloptodes gretae. Note that the epithet uses her first name rather than her surname. It could have been called N. thunbergiae, but was not.

The newly described Nelloptodes gretae

This may seem trivial, and simply a choice of the taxonomist who gave her the honour. After all, why not use the first name rather than the last?

It’s not trivial for one reason: in taxonomy, it’s very common to use the first name when honouring women with epithets, but it’s very rare to do so when honouring a man. Surely that’s odd.

I must admit that I haven’t done a rigorous analysis or carefully trawled the taxonomic literature to prove empirically that this is the case. It’s just that more often than not when I see a species named after a woman her forename is used, but I know of very few examples when a species is named after a man. So let’s call it a testable hypothesis.

Now taxonomy is not too bad when it comes to overt gender inequality, though we still have a way to go. The most recent survey of taxonomic capability in Australia showed that the taxonomic workforce in Australia in 2016 was 65% male, 35% female, and is trending towards parity.

But gender inequality is more subtle than overt measures can capture, and the curious case of gendered honorifics may be an example of hidden, and hence insidious, gendering in our society.

So why would taxonomists tend to use forenames for female honorific epithets and surnames for males? What’s happening here?

A clue comes from research showing that people are twice as likely to call male professionals by their surname than women. We refer to Darwin, Einstein, Watson and Crick, but Marie Curie, Lynn Margulis and Rosalind Franklin. A similar subtle gender inequality may be operating with taxonomic honorifics. It could be that a forename is in some ways a diminutive, a more familiar form than the surname. In this sense, using forenames when honouring women but surnames when honouring men is both a symptom of, and a cause of, gendered behaviour, and a subtle and subconscious devaluing of the very purpose of the honour.

Einstein and Curie. Which is more impressive?

Now, don’t get me wrong. As stated up-front at the beginning of this blog, honouring Thunberg in any way we can is both welcome and important, and the authors of Nelloptodes gretae should be congratulated.

But let’s all be aware of the causes and consequences of gender-specific behaviours, and in future let’s have more thunbergiae epithets, and others like it, rather than gretae epithets.

Of course, an alternative would be to increase our use of forenames when honouring males. More epithets like bobi, jimii and peteri anyone?