Every recognized species on earth (at least in theory) is given a two-part scientific name. This system is called binomial nomenclature. These names are important because they allow people throughout the world to communicate unambiguously about animal species. My question though is does this naming ruin our relationship with the thing we’re trying to know?

Take trees for example. As a young and new ranger, I used to drive through the bush and test myself by naming each tree I passed. Buffalo Thorn, Torchwood, Jackalberry, Gwarrie, Leadwood… and so it would go. The same would happen for birds, flowers, clouds, grasses, animals and so on.

tree, sjambok pod, cassia

By doing this I fooled myself into believing that I ‘knew’ all these species in the environment around me but to be honest I wasn’t really engaging with the living entities that they were. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance scientific names hold and that it’s a really good starting point for getting to know something, but magically remove my capacity for language and I truly believe that I could know that plant just as well without being able to name it.


There are some great tags that help name some organisms, like flavescens for example. It means to become gold or yellow and is used in the naming of many species such as flowers, fish and butterflies. The generic name Diospyros comes from the ancient Greek words dios (διός) and pyros (πυρος). In context, this means more or less “divine fruit” or “divine food”, though its literal meaning is more like “wheat of Zeus”. And capitata refers to any dwarf species. Knowing the meaning of these words therefore adds one layer of ‘knowing’ to these species but for me being good at classification still does not make you a naturalist. I think to really know something you need to look beyond its tag.

Yellow Tang - Zebrasoma flavescens

A Yellow Tang – Zebrasoma flavescens. Yellow tangs, Zebrasoma scopas, are reef fish found in the waters west of Hawaii and east of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. They mainly live off the coast of Hawaii, but are also found in the more western ranges of their habitat, including the islands Ryukyu, Mariana, Marshall, Marcus, and Wake.


Hygrocybe flavescens, Mushroom Hobby, one of the common members of Hygrocybe found in Northern California.


Empidonax flavescens, Yellowish Flycatcher, found in southeastern Mexico to western Panama.

What does it smell like, when do it’s leaves start to shift colour, what birds go crazy for its nectar when it begins to flower, what does it sound like when wind blows through it and which of its branches are most likely to house a leopard? How does its shape change throughout the year, why do its pods crack open the way that they do and how have the people of this area utilised its medicine for countless generations? For me this is to truly engage with a tree, a plant, a bird, the living entity you’re encountering.

Just like with humans, to know someone’s name does not mean that you know them, understand them or have connected with them. There are layers to everything we encounter out here and the more you begin to peel them back the more fascinating the world around you becomes. I’ve often been asked how it is that I have stayed in the bush for as long as I have and not become bored and my answer is that boredom is the furthest thing from my experience; instead each new day brings a deeper and more beautiful understanding of the world around me. My invitation to you is to give up on naming and instead come here willing to truly learn about and connect with the wilderness we’re so privileged to explore.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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on What’s in a Name?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Don Heyneke

Well said, such a great read Amy!!

Ann Seagle

Great thinking!!! Well said.

Dianne Riddel

Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us Amy..you write beautifully. With not being able to be part of the wonderous bush of Londolozi you bring it to life for me and many people out there in the world…thank you.

Cindy Hamilton

salutations for this remarkable blog………indeed, life in the bush and indeed anywhere…….. is all about connections.

Vikram Ghanekar

What a wonderful thought! You are absolutely right. There was one more person who was more interested in understanding/knowing animals when, in his time, every scientist around the world was obsessed with naming and classifying them. His name was Charles Darwin.

Kim Jacobson

Beautifully expressed and written article…..it really is about unfolding the layers…thank you !!

Sean Cresswell

Loved this!

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