The Naming of Things: The Disorder of the Order of Whale Names

Kings Play Chess On Fine Glass Squares. King Phillip Came Over For Great Sex. Kangaroos Punch Children On Family Game Shows…

Do any of these ring a bell? Are you very confused? Regardless – you’re about to be even more so.

The three ridiculous sentences I started this month’s blog with are examples of mnemonic devices I was taught by teachers and friends (I’ll let you guess who taught which) to help me remember the all-important taxonomic order of life: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I’m dating myself here by showing that “back in my day” I wasn’t even tested on the term that now comes before Kingdom – Domain.

I was totally on board when Domain was added to the list. NOW though – even I can’t keep up with the ever increasing taxonomic levels, and I’m someone who actually LIKES etymology (the study of the history of words).

Why does this matter? Because what I wanted to write about today was the origin of the names for the two big branches of the cetacean family tree but when I tried to remember if those branches occurred at the Order or Family level I was met with a barrage of new sub and super categories of Order that I was sincerely unprepared for. There are, and I’m quite serious here, 18 different possible Order levels now, (and that’s just for ORDER!) You’ve got Gigaorder, Magnorder or Megaorder, Grandorder or Capaxorder, Mirorder or Hyperorder, Superorder, Series (yep – this level just leaves the Order out completely – it’s anarchy!), regular ol’ run of the mill Order, Parvorder, Nanorder, Hypoorder, Minorder, Suborder, Infraorder, and finally, Parvorder.

After delving into this I now feel like I have a disorder. Also, I am reminded that, as always, biology is complicated and ever-changing. Thankfully, the origins of the terms for baleen whales and toothed whales are not so let me break it down.

Cetaceans can be broken down into two PARV-orders: Mysticeti (baleen whales) and Odontoceti (toothed whales, which are further broken down into toothed whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Looking at the common names for these parvorders it’s very very very easy to see what distinguishes the two groups. You have baleen? You’re a Mysticeti. You have teeth? You’re an Odontoceti.

Graphic by Peppermint Narwhal Creative

As for the parvorder names themselves, their origins are also decently easy to navigate. Mysticeti is actually a translation error from Aristotle’s History of Animals. If his book, written in Ancient Greek, he ironically referred to whales as “the mouse, the whale so called” which, in Ancient Greek was ho mus to kētos. This was then mistranslated to ho mustikētos, “the Mysticetus.” Often we’re also taught that Mysticeti is derived from the Greek μύσταξ “mustache” and κῆτος “whale” – which gives me a mental image I like very much for baleen whales.

As for Odontoceti, this come from the Ancient Greek ὀδούς “tooth” and κῆτος “whale”. Short and simple. Hooray!

Maybe one day we’ll dig down further into taxonomy but for now you can read about Blackfish, the group cetaceans that are all called whales but are technically dolphins which really are just toothed whales…as well as all other our naming of things blog posts here and all our stories of over thirty different whale, dolphin and porpoise species here.

Graphic by Uko Gorter

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