Name Flap Ruffles Feathers


A duck by any other name would quack just as loudly.

The Oldsquaw duck earned its moniker a couple hundred years ago because early bird watchers thought it flapped and squawked like, well . . . an Indian woman.

But given today’s sensibilities, it was only a matter of time before Oldsquaw divided the ornithological community. Is the name offensive? Or is a current effort to change it a case of political correctness gone awry?

Every part of society wrestles with these questions. Raucous debates have broken out over sports teams, high school mascots and names of places. Crayola even changed its “Indian red” crayon to “chestnut” to avoid confusion over the color’s origin.


For bird and plant experts, none of this would matter if the world would just stick to the formal Latin names that scientists give to all living things. But people don’t, not when a wild bird such as Oldsquaw is officially classified as Clangula hyemalis.

The result is common names that may--to some--seem shockingly out of step, like wandering Jew, coolie’s cap or kaffir (a derogatory South African term for black people) lily.

“If we looked thoroughly, we could come up with a lot of potentially nasty or naughty names,” sighed Richard Banks, chairman of the American Ornithologists’ Union committee that will decide the fate of Oldsquaw.

The road to political correctness is fraught with peril, he and others say. If, for instance, you decide that the plant commonly known as digger pine is insulting because it is a pejorative referring to Native Americans digging roots, what about pope’s nose or Jew’s beard?

In many cases, the impetus for change comes not from an offended party but from experts policing themselves--driven in part by such new fields of academia as ethno-ecology and ethno-botany. The outcome? The plant commonly known as squaw bush is now called skunkbrush. The digger pine has become the gray or foothill pine. And the bird known as Oldsquaw may soon be dubbed the long-tailed duck.

“The change is long overdue,” said April Go Forth, a member of the Ani-YunwiYah tribe and director of Resources for Indian Student Education, a state-funded program in Northern California’s Modoc County. “People have allowed and tolerated those terms, and thankfully we have young people growing up who don’t accept that.”

Some worry that society’s zest for tolerance has created intolerance.

“Our nation is headed for blandness. There is tremendous drive for uniformity and loss of local color,” said Phyllis Faber, co-director of a natural history series for UC Press. “I like the richness of having the old names; it does give a sense of the history.”

Said Dan Nicolson, a curator and research botanist with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution: “The whole point of vernacular names is they are what people say.”

Linnaeus Faced Similar Criticism

In some ways, the current controversy is the latest incarnation of an age-old debate. Nicolson points out that Carl Linnaeus, who created a system of naming plants in Latin in 1753, was skewered by some peers who regarded the nomenclature as lascivious because it often described plants in sexual terms. For example, in Latin, Linnaeus described a plant as having several husbands in the same marriage. But he exacted his own revenge by naming an unpleasant, small flowered weed Siges beckia, after one particularly sharp critic, Siges Beck.

For birds the American Ornithologists’ Union, an organization of 4,000 scientists as well as amateurs, decides on informal monikers and scientific names. A very elaborate code dictates rules for scientific names of plants, but decisions about common names are typically left up to individual authors.

When Ron Lanner wrote his book “Conifers of California,” released earlier this year, he initially planned to discuss Pinus sabiniana and refer to it as digger pine, so named because it was a tree that was important to Native Americans, who ate the large nuts.

But the term “digger” is a derogatory one, said Kat Anderson, an ethno-ecologist with the federally funded Natural Resources Conservation Service. It conjures up the image of groveling in the dirt for grubs and roots, said Anderson, a lecturer in UC Davis’ department of environmental horticulture.

Lanner changed his mind after researching the matter and getting a letter from Anderson. The author chose gray pine.

“Common names are completely discretionary,” Lanner said. “As long as a name is offensive, as long as there are perfectly good alternative names with just as much history, then why use an offensive name?”

Several experts point out that the moniker “gray pine” loses any association to Native Americans.

“It seems to me that the [tribes] would rather have ‘digger pine’ than no reference [to them] at all,” said Allan Schoenherr, author of “Natural History of California” and a professor of ecology at Fullerton College. “Seems more reasonable to leave the name of the pine and change the connotations.”

Some See Change as Empty Gesture

Some Native Americans believe that the name change is an empty gesture meant to assuage liberal guilt. Farrell Cunningham, a member of the Maidu tribe, said he would not rename plants.

“I don’t think it’s good enough to rename it, because it glosses over and doesn’t fix the problem of the treatment of the native people by the U.S. government,” said Cunningham, forest stewardship coordinator for the Maidu Cultural and Development Group in Northern California. “They just capped the tooth but left the rotten root. It’s not a solution.”

On the West Coast, the Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California, published in 1993, is considered a definitive guide to local flora. Nearly 200 experts contributed to the 1,400-page volume, which took 10 years to assemble. Editor Jim Hickman, now dead, decided that the tome “shouldn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities,” recalled Susan D’Alcamo, an assistant project manager.

The entry for the plant nicknamed wandering Jew, for instance, would have omitted that particular common name. (Ultimately, the plant was excluded because it is not native to California, D’Alcamo said.) When it came time to consider squaw bush, the decision was clear. The name had to go. (The fact that squawroot, or Perideria, is listed in the Jepson Manual was an oversight, said Dieter Wilken, the former project manager who is now research director for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.)

The word “squaw” comes from Algonquian, associated with tribes in Canada and the northeastern United States. In that language the word means “woman,” said Frank O’Brien, a member of the Abenaki tribe and author of the book “Understanding Algonquian Indian Words.”

Over time, however, the word has taken on negative connotations and can be a derogatory term used to describe a woman’s vagina, said O’Brien, president of the Aquidneck Indian Council in Rhode Island.

Informed of the change in the plant name, O’Brien said, “It shows some sensitivity, because it is a deeply insulting word, especially for a Native American woman.”

Ornithologists, however, can be more ornery. Over the years, the issue of renaming the Oldsquaw has arisen several times, said Richard C. Banks, chairman of the committee on classification and nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

This year, as the duck’s population declines, several biologists in Alaska formally petitioned the union, saying the existing name made it embarrassing for them to discuss the duck’s plight with Native Americans.

But Banks said Native Americans never complained. “I’m sure the ducks aren’t offended by what they’re called,” he said. “Politically correct biologists take affront to the name.”

Some birders argued that there was another reason to change the duck’s name: the issue of uniformity. In Britain, the very same bird is known as the long-tailed duck. This argument was persuasive to many.

“We refuse to change on the basis of being politically correct; we will change in the name of uniformity,” said Banks, an ornithologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Smithsonian.

The ornithology union’s committee expects to publish its final decision in July. Recently, word leaked out that the union, in fact, planned to approve a change, and birders reacted with fury, Banks said. An Internet poll showed a 2-1 majority in favor of the current common name, he said.

Such responses cast some doubt on whether the union will stick with its initial decision, Banks said, adding that “we’ve been known to change our minds.”

In any case, he hopes the union will avoid such debates in the future.

“There are other names, if one uses one’s imagination, that could be totally or partly offensive to somebody, which is why we don’t want to get involved in changing names for political purposes,” Banks said.

Like what? Well, there are the birds that have been called Baldpates.

“That,” Banks allowed, “could be insulting to some people, I suppose.”


What’s in a Name Change

Former name: Blackboy

Scientific name: Xanthorrhoea

Common name: Australian grass tree, grass-lily


Former name: Squaw apple

Scientific name: Peraphyllum ramosissimum

Common name: wild crab apple


Former name: Squaw cabbage

Scientific name: Caulanthus inflatus

Common name: Dessert candle


Former name: Jewbush

Scientific name: Pedilanthus tithymaloides

Common name: Slipperflower, red bird


Former name: Morman tea*

Scientific name: Ephedra species

Common name: Desert tea


This was objectionable because the plant contains ephedrin, a stimulant, and Mormons prohibit the use of such substances.