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The formal system of naming species is called binominal nomenclature (especially in zoological circles), binary nomenclature (especially in botanical circles), or the binomial classification system. The essence of it is that each species name is in (modern scientific) Latin and has two parts, so that it is popularly known as the Latin name of the species, although this terminology is avoided by biologists and philologists, who prefer the term scientific name. Instead of using the full seven-category system (kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species) in naming an organism, Karl von Linne chose to use a two-word naming system. He adopted the binominal nomenclature scheme, using only the genus name and the specific name or epithet which together form the species name.For example, humans belong to genus Homo and their specific name is sapiens. Humans as a species are thus classified as Homo sapiens. The first letter of the first name, the genus, is always capitalized, while that of the second is not, even when derived from a proper noun such as the name of a person or place. Conventionally, all names of genera and lower taxa are always italicised, while family names and higher taxa are printed in plain text. Species can be divided into a further rank, giving rise to a trinomial name or trinomen for a subspecies.


Karl von linne or Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), a Swedish botanist, invented the modern system of binomial nomenclature.

The adoption of a system of binomial nomenclature is due to Swedishmarker botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who attempted to describe the entire known natural world and gave every species (mineral, plant, or animal) a two-part name. However, binomial nomenclature in various forms did exist before Linnaeus, and was used by the Bauhins, who lived nearly two hundred years before Linnaeus.

Value of binomial nomenclature

The value of the binomial nomenclature system derives primarily from its economy, its widespread use, and the stability of names it generally favors:
  • The same name can be used all over the world, in all languages, avoiding difficulties of translation.
  • Although such stability as exists is far from absolute, the procedures associated with establishing binomial nomenclature tend to favor stability. For example, when species are transferred between genera (as not uncommonly happens as a result of new knowledge), if possible the species descriptor is kept the same. Similarly if what were previously thought to be distinct species are demoted from species to a lower rank, former species names may be retained as infraspecific descriptors.

Despite the rules favoring stability and uniqueness, in practice a single species may have several scientific names in circulation, depending largely on taxonomic point of view (see synonymy).

Derivation of names

The genus name and specific descriptor may come from any source. Often they are ordinary New Latin words, but they may also come from Ancient Greek, from a place, from a person (often a naturalist), a name from the local language etc. In fact, taxonomists come up with specific descriptors from a variety of sources, including in-jokes and puns.

However, names are always treated grammatically as if they were a Latin phrase.

There is a list of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names.

Family names are often derived from a common genus within the family.

The genus name must be unique inside each kingdom. It is not normally a noun in its Latin grammar.

The specific descriptor is also a Latin word but it can be grammatically any of various forms including these:
  • Another noun nominative form in apposition with the genus (the words do not necessarily agree in gender), for example, the lion Panthera leo.
  • A noun genitive (possessive) form made up from a person's surname, as in the Tibetan antelope Pantholops hodgsonii, the shrub Magnolia hodgsonii, or the Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni. Here, the person named is not usually (if ever) the person who names the species; for example Anthus hodgsoni was named by Charles Wallace Richmond, in honour of Hodgson.
  • A noun genitive form made up from a place name, as with Latimeria chalumnae ("of Chalumna")
  • A common noun genitive form (singular or plural) as in the bacterium Escherichia coli. This is common in parasites, as in Xenos vesparum where vesparum simply means "of the wasps"
  • An ordinary Latin or New Latin adjective, as in the house sparrow Passer domesticus where domesticus ("domestic") simply means "associated with the house" (or "houses")

Specific descriptors are commonly reused in different genera (as is shown by examples of hodgsonii above)

Codes of nomenclature

From the mid nineteenth century onwards it became ever more apparent that a body of rules was necessary to govern scientific names. In the course of time these became Nomenclature Codes governing the naming of animals (ICZN), plants (incl. Fungi, cyanobacteria) (ICBN), and bacteria (incl. Archaea) (ICNB). Virus names are governed by a taxonomic code, which determines taxa as well as names (ICTV). These codes differ in certain ways, e.g.:
  • The ICBN, the plant Code does not allow tautonyms, whereas the ICZN, the animal Code does.
  • The starting points, the time from which these Codes are in effect (retroactively), vary from group to group. In botany the starting point will often be in 1753 (the year Carl Linnaeus first published Species Plantarum), in zoology in 1758. Bacteriology started anew, with a starting point on 1980-01-01.

A BioCode has been suggested to replace several codes, although implementation is not in sight. There is also a code in development for naming clades, called the PhyloCode.


Although the fine detail differs, there are certain aspects which are universally adopted:
  • As the words "binomial", "binominal" and "binary" all signify, the scientific name of each species is formed by the combination of two words, which are in a modern form of Latin:
    1. the genus name (also called the generic name).
    2. a second word identifying the species within that genus, for which the technical term varies, as follows:
      • a general term for the word identifying the species is the specific descriptor
      • in zoology, the word identifying the species is called the specific name
      • in botany, the word identifying the species is called the specific epithet
  • Species names are usually typeset in italics; for example, Homo sapiens. Generally the binomial should be printed in a typeface (font) different from that used in the normal text; for example, "Several more Homo sapiens were discovered." When handwritten, they should be underlined; for example, Homo sapiens. Each name should be underlined individually.
  • The genus name is always written with an initial capital letter.
  • In current usage, the specific name is never written with an initial capital.
For example, the entire tiger species is Panthera tigris
  • Some older works, on the other hand, wrote some specific names with an initial capital.
  • There are several terms for this two-part species name; these include binomen (plural binomina), binomial , binominal , and species name.
  • All taxa at ranks above species have a name composed of one word only, a "uninominal name".
  • The first level subdivisions within a species, termed subspecies, are each given a name with three parts: these are the two forming the species name, plus a third part (the subspecific name) which identifies the subspecies within the species. This is called trinomial nomenclature, and is written differently in zoology and botany. For example:
    • Two of the subspecies of Olive-backed Pipit are Anthus hodgsoni berezowskii and Anthus hodgsoni hodgsoni
    • The Bengal tiger is Panthera tigris tigris and the Siberian tiger Panthera tigris altaica
    • The tree European Elder is Sambucus nigra subsp. nigra and the American Black Elder is Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis
  • In scholarly texts, the main entry for the binomial is followed by the abbreviated (in botany) or full (in zoology) surname of the scientific authority – the scientist who first published the classification. If in the original description the species was assigned to a different genus from that to which it is assigned today, the abbreviation or name of the describer and the description date are set in parentheses.
For example: (plant) Amaranthus retroflexus L., and (animal) Passer domesticus (Linnaeus, 1758) – the latter was described by Linneus as Fringilla domestica.
  • When used with a common name, the scientific name often follows in parentheses, although this varies with publication.
For example: "The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is decreasing in Europe".
  • The scientific name should generally be written in full. The exception to this is when several species from the same genus are being listed or discussed in the same paper or report, or the same species is mentioned repeatedly; in that case the genus is written in full when it is first used, but may then be abbreviated to an initial (and period) for successive species names; for example, a list of members of the genus Canis might be written: "Canis lupus, C. aureus, C. simensis". In rare cases, this abbreviated form has spread to more general use; for example, the bacterium Escherichia coli is often referred to as just E. coli, and Tyrannosaurus rex is perhaps even better known simply as T. rex, these two both often appearing in this form even where they are not part of any list of species of the same genus.
  • The abbreviation "sp." is used when the actual specific name cannot or need not be specified. The abbreviation "spp." (plural) indicates "several species". These are not italicised (or underlined).
For example: "Canis sp." means "an unspecified species of the genus Canis", while "Canis spp." means "two or more species of the genus Canis".
  • Easily confused with the foregoing usage is the abbreviation "ssp." (zoology) or "subsp." (botany), indicating an unspecified subspecies (see also trinomen, ternary name). In the same way the plurals of these are "sspp." or "subspp."
  • The abbreviation "cf." is used when the identification is not confirmed.
For example "Corvus cf. splendens" indicates "a bird similar to the House Crow but not certainly identified as this species".
  • Mycology uses the same system as in botany.

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