Your tirade against the AOU, and your attempt to blame them for our long-established tradition of using the possessive form for birds named after people, is seriously flawed.
The possessive form (e.g. Steller's) is used not only by the AOU for birds of North America, but by the following:
-- The B.O.U. for birds occurring in Britain
-- Clements for birds of the world
-- most authorities for reptiles and amphibians (e.g. Blanding's turtle, Dunn's
salamander, Gilbert's skink)
-- at least some authorities for mammals (e.g. in the Princeton Field Guide to
Mammals of North America)
-- the great majority of authorities for plants
You conveniently left out this information in your arguments.
The fact is that, in English at least, the overwhelming tradition is to use the possessive form for patronyms (animals and plants that are named after people). If some mammalogists do not do that, it's the mammalogists who are out of step.
One matter of style where the AOU does differ with most similar organizations is in capitalizing English names of birds. Botanists, herpetologists, and mammalogists do not insist on capitalizing English names of species. In this situation, as well, I support the AOU. The English names of birds are proper names, and as such, should be capitalized. In many cases, it helps to avoid confusion about which species is being discussed (e.g. Yellow Warbler versus any yellow warbler).
Whether or not the use of the possessive form for bird species names is "correct" can be debated until one is blue in the face by linguists and other nit-pickers. However, this tradition started long before the AOU was founded.
Any lexicographer will tell you that correct word usage is determined as much by current usage as it is by historical origins or grammatical "correctness". The use of the possessive form for bird names has been in practice for centuries, and to most of us, it seems right and proper. Ted, good luck with your campaign to get rid of the possessive form of bird names, but yours is a minority viewpoint, and it is highly likely to remain so.
From: National Birding Hotline Cooperative (Chat Line) [mailto:BIRDCHAT@...] On Behalf Of Ted Floyd
Sent: February-14-10 6:53 AM
To: BIRDCHAT@... Subject: [BIRDCHAT] Why Steller's Jay is wrong. It should be Steller Jay.
Consider all of the following:
1. Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building
2. Curtis Institute of Music
3. Turner Field
4. Obama administration
5. Messersmith case
6. Burger court
7. Johnny Carson show
8. Aunt Jemima syrup
9. Disney Channel
16. Martin Luther King Boulevard
17. Roberto Clemente Drive
18. Jerry Tarkanian Way
19. Lincoln County
20. Jefferson Township
21. Washington Borough
All of the preceding are named for some person. My guess is, all of the preceding look basically "normal" to you. Now, how about the following:
22. Dall sheep
23. Douglas squirrel
24. Weddell seal
And now for the kicker:
25. Steller's Jay
Why? Why do we do that? Why do we write Steller's Jay, with an apostrophe-s? Why isn't it Steller Jay? After all, we don't write or say Turner's Field, or Doppler's effect, or Jefferson's Township. Well, the reason--the only reason--is because the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) says so.
The AOU, right from the get-go, in the late 19th century, has told us to write Steller's Jay, Wilson's Warbler, Botteri's Sparrow, and so forth. But why? How come? Why has the AOU always insisted on an apostrophe-s?
In modern English, the apostrope-s is used to denote possession, as in Obama's shoes, or Erlenmeyer's house, or Salk's notebook. If something *belongs to* someone, then you use the apostrophe-s. But if something is *named for* someone, you do not. Thus: "Steller's shotgun" or "Steller's horse," to denote Steller's possession of those things. But it should be Steller Jay and Steller Sea-Eagle, to denote that those things have been named after Steller.
Okay, the AOU is "wrong." It always has been. But the question remains: Why? Why does the AOU do it that way?
My hypothesis is it has to do with the noble old tradition of trying to "Latinize" English. In Latin, one commemorates someone with the genitive, or possessive, case. That's totally fine. That's how you do it in Latin. But, and this is the critical point, That's *not* how you do it in English.
Those 19th-century (and 18th-century) taxonomists may well have been fine Latinists. (See Rick Wright's fascinating analysis and commentary, Birding, April 2003 issue, pp. 116-117.) But the problem here isn't one of knowing good Latin. The problem is one of translation. I submit that it is an error, in the present case, to translate the Latin genitive into an English possessive.
A key fallacy in translation is that one ought to preserve the original. Wrong! The essential goal of a skilled translator is to get the point across in a different language.
Consider the Spanish preposition "de," which is used in a very general way to denote association. The best English translation is "of." For example: Canto de la Tierra (Song of the Earth) or Rio de Luz (River of Light). Fine. That works. Also, you'd be okay in translating "Evangelio de Juan" as "Gospel of John." But let's say you have "el libro de Juan." A competent translator would render that as "Juan's book"; a more-literal rendering, "the book of Juan," just isn't good English. Or how about "una muchacha de ocho años"? I'd say "an eight-year-old girl" is a better translation than the more-literal "girl of eight years." And only a truly incompetent translator would render "Salida de Emergencia" as "Exit of Emergency"; of course, it should be "Emergency Exit."
And that, in a nutshell, is what has happened, I believe, with formulations such as "Steller's Jay." Yes, the Latin name of the species is "stelleri." But it's not necessarily correct--and I submit it's simply wrong--to "translate" that into English as "Steller's." The proper, and properly understood, English should be Steller, as in Steller Jay.
To some extent, we birders already know these things. We unselfconsciously, and quite logically, say and write things like, "I heard a few thrushes migrating last night...a half dozen Hermits, a dozen Swainson's, and a late Veery." We certainly don't say (or write) "Swainson'ses." (As in, "keeping up with the Joneses.) And here's a more telling example: "We saw some nice raptors...2 Harlan's, 2 Roughies, 3 Coops, and a Sharpie." Note: The bird is a Coop. Not a Coop's. And the plural is Coops. Not Coop's or Coop'ses.
Formulations like Cooper's Hawk, Swainson's Thrush, and Steller's Jay are affected and antiquated. They're also wrong. Let's employ proper, and properly understood, English when we're writing and talking about birds. We want to share our passion for birding with as many folks as possible, don't we? We want to reach out to beginners, don't we? We want our voice to be heard, don't we? We want to make a difference, don't we? Then let's do it in a way that makes us look smart and relevant, not fussy and antiquated.
Alright, I'm outta here, for a stroll around my local patch. I hope the Cooper Hawk is still around!