Taxon and Nomenclature

Turland et al., 2018, published by Koeltz Botanical Books

In my last post in this series (1,2,3) on articles in Taxon, the journal of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, I want to discuss a group of “perspective” articles on a thorny nomenclatural issue.  The first, by Gideon Smith and Estrela Figueiredo (2022) of Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, dealt with the scientific plant names that refer to people or ideas that can be considered offensive, particularly in a post-colonial context.  The example they use is the root “rhodes-“ to commemorate Cecil Rhodes who made a fortune from diamond mining in South Africa and was prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890-1896.  He was a symbol of British imperialism and exploitation of indigenous people.  The authors used this example because it was related to a South African movement begun in 2015 called “Rhodes Must Fall,” referring to a statue on the University of Cape Town campus that was eventually removed.  However, the movement developed beyond that and came to embody disposing of lingering reminders of colonialism in other contexts, including botany.  They also mentioned that the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar is commemorated in the name, Kalanchoe salazarii, native to the former Portuguese colony of Angola.  In addition they cited an earlier article (Knapp et al., 2020) that brought up the problematic word, caffra, derived from the Arabic for infidel, that is considered an awful racial slur in Africa yet appears in various forms in many botanical epithets. 

Smith and Figueiredo note that the present International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Turland and Wiersema, 2018) does not allow for a name change for reasons of offensive language.  They call for a change in the code to address this problem, and in fact, a proposal for such a change was published in the December 2021 issue of Taxon.  (This article was published online after the Rhodes article, but there were difficulties publishing paper editions during COVID, so not all the paper issues were published in sequence).  It was written by two Australia systematists, Timothy Hammer and Kevin Thiele.  They cited the examples of caffra and of hibbertia, commemorating George Hibbert a British slave trader and owner who was also a strident anti-abolitionist.  They proposed that the language in the code stating that a name or epithet cannot be rejected “merely because it is inappropriate or disagreeable, or because another is preferable” be changed.  Also, a new article should be added stating that a legitimate name or its epithet may be rejected as culturally offensive or inappropriate.  The actual proposal gives more detail but that is its essence. 

In the April 2022 issue of Taxon, Sergei Mosyakin, director of the Kholodny Institute of Botany in Ukraine wrote a rebuttal to Smith and Figueiredo.  He notes that his country has suffered from colonialism and ethnic oppression, but argues that dealing with such history through nomenclatural change is fraught with difficulties.  Allowing changes could lead to a “slippery slope” and looks like “a new form of politically motivated scientific totalitarianism and censorship” (p. 251).  Mosyakin goes on at some length about the difficulties in evaluating what is inappropriate and how this is to be decided.  He makes valid points but overall his language is more strident than that in the other articles, and needless to say it provoked a response.

The next article in what was becoming a series was published in the December 2022 issue of Taxon and was written by Smith, Figueiredo, Hammer and Thiele.  It was brief, measured, and to the point, though they do write that Mosyakin “severely misrepresented” their views and proposals.  They address three of his contentions, the first being the slippery slope argument.  The Hammer and Thiele proposal for amending the Code included the creation of a permanent committee, like several others within the Nomenclatural Section, to deal with proposed changes in an orderly fashion.  This would be in keeping with the standard way changes are handled.  The authors admit that there will be some proposed changes that might be considered in a “gray area” between extremes, but contend that this is true of most complex issues and shouldn’t be an argument against dealing with them at all.

The authors also reject the idea that their proposal involves politically motivated censorship.  They see as “far-fetched” the view that the Nomenclatural Section will be conducting “purges” or become a totalitarian regime:  “In our view, if a community of end-users formally decides that a mechanism should be established to restrict the use of some scientific names and epithets for the greater good, this process is not ‘censorship’” (p. 934).  Finally, they don’t think their proposals “erase history” because of how nomenclatural change works.  The previous names do not disappear, but rather, move into synonymy.  This move doesn’t expunge the name but acknowledges that it is no longer considered culturally acceptable.  I think this is the strongest of their arguments.  Whether the change will lead to a slippery slope and what some would consider censorship will only be determined if the Code is amended and proposals for name rejections considered.  In the meantime, this discussion is a fruitful one; it fits well into the much larger conversation about efforts to move toward decolonial natural history collections and beyond that to decolonial societies. 

Since I wrote the first draft of this post, I’ve come upon two more articles on this subject in the December 2022 issue of Taxon, one by Mosyakin and one by Thiele et al.  Not surprisingly they don’t change their positions but do elaborate on them, especially Mosyakin.  He gives several examples of where name change could lead and what new problems it could produce in the future.


Knapp, S., Vorontsova, M. S., & Turland, N. J. (2020). Indigenous Species Names in Algae, Fungi and Plants: A Comment on Gillman & Wright (2020). TAXON, 69(6), 1409–1410.

Smith, G. F., & Figueiredo, E. (2022). “Rhodes-” must fall: Some of the consequences of colonialism for botany and plant nomenclature. TAXON, 71(1), 1–5.

Hammer, T. A., & Thiele, K. R. (2021). (119–122) Proposals to amend Articles 51 and 56 and Division III, to allow the rejection of culturally offensive and inappropriate names. TAXON, 70(6), 1392–1394.

Mosyakin, S. L. (2022). If “Rhodes-” must fall, who shall fall next? TAXON, 71(2), 249–255.

Smith, G. F., Figueiredo, E., Hammer, T. A., & Thiele, K. R. (2022). Dealing with inappropriate honorifics in a structured and defensible way is possible. TAXON, 71(5), 933–935.

Mosyakin, S. L. (2022). Defending Art. 51 of the Code: Comments on Smith & al. (2022). TAXON, 71(6), 1141–1150.

Thiele, K. R., Smith, G. F., Figueiredo, E., & Hammer, T. A. (2022). Taxonomists have an opportunity to rid botanical nomenclature of inappropriate honorifics in a structured and defensible way. TAXON, 71(6), 1151–1154.

*The references are given in the order in which they were first published that is, online.

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