The present system of binomial nomenclature identifies each species by a scientific name of two words, Latin in form and usually derived from Greek or Latin roots. The first name (capitalized) is the genus of the organism, the second (not capitalized) is its species. The scientific name of the white oak is Quercus alba, while red oak is Quercus rubra. The first name applies to all species of the genus— Quercus is the name of all oaks—but the entire binomial applies only to a single species. Many scientific names describe some characteristic of the organism ( alba = white; rubra = red); many are derived from the name of the discoverer or the geographic location of the organism. Genus and species names are always italicized when printed; the names of other taxa (families, etc.) are not. When a species (or several species of the same genus) is mentioned repeatedly, the genus may be abbreviated after its first mention, as in Q. alba. Subspecies are indicated by a trinomial; for example, the southern bald eagle is Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, as distinguished from the northern bald eagle, H. leucocephalus washingtoniensis.
The advantages of scientific over common names are that they are accepted by speakers of all languages, that each name applies only to one species, and that each species has only one name. This avoids the confusion that often arises from the use of a common name to designate different things in different places (for example, see elk), or from the existence of several common names for a single species. There are two international organizations for the determination of the rules of nomenclature and the recording of specific names, one for zoology and one for botany. According to the rules they have established, the first name to be published (from the work of Linnaeus on) is the correct name of any organism unless it is reclassified in such a way as to affect that name (for example, if it is moved from one genus to another). In such a case definite rules of priority also apply.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.