Kings Play Chess On What?

If the sentence “Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares” brings back memories of high school biology, you know your way around taxonomy. It classifies organisms in an ordered system that indicates natural relationships. The mnemonic helped students remember taxonomy’s levels in ever-increasing specificity: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

The scientists who write articles for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine are familiar with the convention of capitalizing most words in the taxonomic system, and italicizing when it comes to genus and species. So, the common raven’s scientific name is Corvus corax. It’s a member of the Corvidae family, which includes jays and crows.

More completely, a raven is in the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, and the rest you know. Isn’t that well organized and elegant? You can almost see a liveried butler at the door of a ballroom, announcing the entrance of Mr. Common Raven like a member of the aristocracy: “Animalia Chordata Aves Passeriformes Corvidae Corvus corax.” And here is our guest in his shiny black feather suit being welcomed by George Alexander Louis, Prince of Cambridge (I just had to get cute here).

So far, so easy. Capitalize most words used in the taxa. The only word not capitalized is the species: It’s corax, not Corax. The challenge comes when deciding how to deal with English words derived from the taxonomic system. We run across this occasionally in articles for our magazine. The common raven, that robust member of the Corvidae family—is he a Corvid, or a corvid?

I could argue this both ways. On the one hand, “corvid” is simply an adjective, like “black” or “feathered.” No reason to start it with a capital “C.” On the other hand, “corvid” is an adjective derived from the word Corvidae. This raven is a member of that family. If I am a Hammonds, a member of the Hammonds family, shouldn’t he be a capital-C Corvid?

In my head, those are both good arguments. Fortunately, on questions like this there are references outside my own head that I can turn to for the answer. In this case, I found it in the Chicago Manual of Style. Per CMS 8.126, “English words derived from the taxonomic system are lowercased and treated as English words.” The relevant example: hominid (from the family Hominidae). The Corvus corax, the common raven, is a corvid, a member of the family Corvidae.

Sorry, Dad: Guess I’m a hammonds after all.

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