Oak Oak

Quercus robur leaf, back-lighted, showing venation

Plant and Animal scientific names share origins in the works of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who consistently applied a generic name (the Genus) and a specific epithet (the Species) to each different kind of plant and animal. Linnaeus had absolute ideas as to how a name would be applied, but nothing was set in stone. Over the two and a half centuries since his work, taxonomists have agreed on highly detailed rules for names of organisms, rules that vary from kingdom to kingdom….

Zoologists have, historically, accepted a convention that allows a specific name to repeat the generic name, a construction we call tautonymy. The making of tautonyms, repetitive names, such as Rattus rattus, Gorilla gorilla, Bison bison, Lynx lynx, Iguana iguana, Bufo bufo, etc., has been applied to animals that are incredibly notable and distinctive.

Internationally adopted rules for plant names, however, prohibit repetitive names, even when the plant in question is iconic. The stately Italian stone pine, for example, could not be named Pinus pinus, but that issue was avoided from the start because Linnaeus settled on Pinus pinea as the name. This isn’t surprising since Linnaeus himself resisted tautonyms, declaring in argument 292 of his Philosophia botanica that “contradiction, tautology, and rhetorical flourishes must be banished.”

Quercus robur from Gerard’s Herball

Just as Italian Stone Pine was the most recognized European pine, the iconic Old World hardwood was English Oak, a tree that could logically have been named Quercus quercus (in Latin, that would be oak oak). But Linnaeus would have none of that. As with Stone Pine, he chose to avoid the tautonym by designating English Oak as Quercus robur, accepting Quercus as the genus for all oaks and specifically applying robur to this important species. Robur was another ancient name for English oak, due to the reddish color of the wood. It was through association with oaks that the Latin term robustus came to mean “oaken”, hard, firm, even strong. So Linnaeus cleverly gave us “pine pine” and “oak oak” – showing how to emphasize a point while staying within rules he established.

Young stem of Quercus robur

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