Red fish, blue fish, big breasted fish
December 27, 2006 12:48 PM   Subscribe

If a mermaid were to have a scientific classification, how would I go about building the name so that it sounds half believable?

What sort of notes would a scientist or naturalist keep about a mermaid beyond length, weight, etc? Something they would jot down quickly to expand elsewhere?

It might help if I explain what I'm trying to do. You see, I've created an art piece that looks like a drawing or old photo of a mermaid in a vintage-looking notebook. I'm trying to figure out what sort of notes would be written around it and coming up blank. Mostly because, at this point, my brain is shorting out from mermaid overload. Any help would be appreciated.
posted by FunkyHelix to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Names seem to be Latin, or at least ... Latin-ish. The species name tends to reflect an unusual trait (a visible feature or a unique behavior) or some in-joke about the person who discovered it.

Try to figure out where your mermaid would fit into the classical taxonomy would be a good start. It's probably a chordate, even a vertebrate. If it was a variety of primate that decided to go the water route like dolphins, you might start around Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primates, Hominidae, but if you wanted a bony fish that happened to converge to a human look, you might go with Animalia, Chordata, Vertebrata, Gnathostomata, Osteichthyes.
posted by adipocere at 12:59 PM on December 27, 2006

Scientific names for species tend to come from Latin.

A mermaid would almost certainly be of the genus Homo, like people. The Latin for fish is piscis, so I would call it Homo piscis. It doesn't entirely have to come from Latin however, so you could make the second word what you want, but I would keep the first word Homo.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:01 PM on December 27, 2006

There is only one answer:

homo pesci
posted by yclipse at 1:02 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: K: Animalia
P: Chordata
C: Mammalia
O: Sirenia^
F: Hydronymphidæ
G/S: Hydronymphus andersenensis
(See also.)
posted by rob511 at 1:17 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

how bout homo aquasapien?
posted by 0217174 at 1:20 PM on December 27, 2006

It would most certainly not be genus Homo. Consider of all the higher primates there are only unequivocally two species (Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, and some researchers want to lump even those together (Neanderthals can be considered as H.s.neanderthalensis; Species like habilis, heidelbergensis, etc are a constant source of taxonomic debate so while there might be more than one species of genus Homo there )).

So, considering the entry bar is quite high to genus Homo, I am pretty sure a creature that lives in the ocean with a tail is not going to get there. It's going to be a new order, at least.

on preview: rob511 makes a good suggestion
posted by Rumple at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2006

Some notes a scientist might make

-There do not appear to be any males of the species
-Mermaids have mammaries and a navel, but do not have a vagina
-attempts to observe mermaid reproduction have been unsuccessful
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:45 PM on December 27, 2006

It would most certainly not be genus Homo

Just want to emphasize this. I too like rob511's suggestion, but I'd probably go with Hydronymphus rusalka myself.
posted by languagehat at 1:50 PM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: I really like what rob has there. I had gotten away from Manatees and was thinking something like:

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Subclass: Australosphenida
Order: Monotremata

But then I lose steam there.
posted by FunkyHelix at 1:55 PM on December 27, 2006

Argh, I forgot the domain. *sad*
posted by adipocere at 2:10 PM on December 27, 2006

A mermaid is half-woman, and the important half, so Homo is entirely appropriate. Hers would be the closest non-human related species. Fish? You're looking at the wrong end!

Anyway, people looking at your artwork will know that humans are called something like "Homo sapiens": they therefore need to see a mermaid called "Homo [something fishy and preferably feminine]" TheOnlyCoolTim's "Homo piscis" is on the right lines. I like "nymph" from rob511 though: how about "Homo nymphae"? "Homo aphrodite"? "Homo mermaidiae"? "Homo aqua"? "Homo sirenae"? "Homo bellapiscia"?
posted by alasdair at 3:52 PM on December 27, 2006

Best answer: Who says there's only one variety or sub-species?

Northern European mermaids (sightings off Danish coast): Hydronymphus andersenensis, as suggested by rob511

Northwestern European mermaids (sightings off Irish coast): Hydronymphus merrowensis

Eastern European and Russian mermaids (sightings in major rivers): Hydronymphus rusalka, as suggested by languagehat

Mediterranean mermaids (sightings in the Aegean): Hydronymphus Thessalonikensis

North American mermaids, East Coast (sightings in New York Harbor and off Cape Cod): Hydronymphus ganzandmandelensis

North American mermaids, West Coast (sightings in the Pacific Northwest): Hydronymphus starbuckensis

No doubt there are many other varieties that biologists have yet to fully or accurately classify.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:00 PM on December 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

Thanks, languagehat, for the reminder of Rusalka — Dvořák's opera of the same name is also the source of one of the most beautiful of arias, Song to the Moon (YouTube). Now FunkyHelix's siren, H. andersenensis or H. rusalka or H. lorelei, or whatever she chooses, can also have a theme song.

F.H., can we see your drawing?
posted by rob511 at 4:11 PM on December 27, 2006

I agree with alasdair concerning what the name will invoke in the viewer and second the suggestion of Homo nymphae.

I do not agree that a mermaid is half human. But, myth has clearly established that humans and merfolk can interbreed (example). As mermaid myths vary by region and time, I'd expect that the taxonomy of merfolk, like dolphins^, would be specific to their locale and behaviors.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 4:11 PM on December 27, 2006

I think you might enjoy the work of Walmor Correa.
posted by extrabox at 4:19 PM on December 27, 2006

North American mermaids, West Coast (sightings in the Pacific Northwest): Hydronymphus starbuckensis

Note: Species is highly invasive and has been found in remote locations, where it interferes with local ecosystems.

Great post, Asparagirl!
posted by ottereroticist at 4:34 PM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Sure, you can get a look. Just remember it's a work in progress.

=Click Through=
posted by FunkyHelix at 4:36 PM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Um, I should probably mention that the picture is pretty huge, and before someone brings it up "looks like a drawing or photo" translates from me speak to "this is a photo manipulation because I don't have actual figure drawing talent."
posted by FunkyHelix at 4:40 PM on December 27, 2006

I've done something similar.
The notes also included the place it was found, the date, the discoverer/naturalist's name, (and a later note added by someone else indicating he disappeared shortly thereafter, and was never seen again :-)

For the name, I didn't bother with kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, just genus and species. I started with straightforward descriptive English, then then used a computer translation to latin as fodder for making the scientific name.

Eg. starting in English, Genus could be "mermaid" and species could be some descriptive like "Azure-finned". Use latin translation for scientificcy sounding equivalent of Azure-Finned Mermaid, and then write with the assumption that the reader is sufficiently scientifically literate that you don't need to fill in the childishly obvious stuff that the reader should already know, such as which family the mermaid genus is in :-)

Also, it was themed as the findings/legacy of someone earnest but considered by others to be on the fringes of the scientific community, thus if his naming was scientifically sloppy, it wouldn't matter as it would be true to his character.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:51 AM on December 28, 2006

I meant to also add that "Azure-finned" wasn't an entirely random suggestion - it's an example of a useful trait description consisting of only of a colour and an object, thus the name is both easy to translate, and robust enough to survive the crudest machine-translation and remain essentially correct.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:03 AM on December 28, 2006

it sounds like you're aiming this piece to an audience of regular people, not scientists. in which case, maybe a name that "sounds evocative" is more important than a name that "is accurate".
if so, i'd steer clear of "homo", as it sounds too masculine, and i think "hydro" sounds too monsterlike. "pesci" makes me think of joe peschi with a mouthful of seafood linguine.

i'd look for words with a more feminine, mystical sound.
here are some words that evoke mermaids to me:

NAIAD (greek water-spirit)
SELKIE (a kind of nymph)

IMMACULATA (immaculate- mermaids seem to lack genetalia)
VIRGO (virgin, maiden)

MARINA (sea)

so, how about


btw, the STARBUCKS logo is a mermaid.

this is a fun one- thanks for posting!
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:21 AM on December 28, 2006

Response by poster: And if anyone is wondering, you can see the final piece here. Enjoy and thanks so much for all the help.
posted by FunkyHelix at 10:02 AM on January 5, 2007

Wow, you actually used my suggestion! Thank you! And your art is lovely -- watercolors are a perfect medium for a watery ole timey lady-fish.

But I'm feeling a twinge of guilt too, because perhaps I should have mentioned earlier that there was a possible conflict of interest in my suggesting Hydronymphus ganzandmandelensis: the "Ganz" in that name is actually my name, too, since my father-in-law co-wrote that particular fish-tale... :-)
posted by Asparagirl at 6:12 PM on January 7, 2007

Response by poster: my father-in-law co-wrote that particular fish-tale

Wow, that's so cool. I loved that movie as a kid, so I used it because of that.

And while it looks like watercolors, the whole piece is a digital photo manipulation. I just used a bunch of different filters, blends, and smudging until it had a soft, sheer painted look.

Glad you like it though. I was rather pleased with the outcome.
posted by FunkyHelix at 9:48 AM on January 8, 2007

« Older Who should we hire to secure our network in NoVA?   |   Good, basic cooking ingredients, please! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.