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Purpureus is a Latin word which came directly into English in the 14th century (although not a lot of English speakers say it as an adjective these days). In Latin it means “brilliant, radiant shining” or “wearing purple” or it describes the color royal purple or red. In English it just means purple! The Latin word itself was borrowed from ancient Greek world “porphyritica” which describes the kingly purple of Tyrian purple or porphyry (a deep red igneous stone of extreme hardness which could, with much labor, be made into costly sculpture).

Purple Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureus (photo by tristanba)

Purple Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureus (photo by tristanba)

All of which is to say purpureus is still on the books as a color—a middle range purple almost half way between red and blue (although maybe leaning slightly toward red). The hue is somewhat paler than true purple, but it is still a very regal color. Naturalists have long used the word to describe purple creatures. For example here is a magnificent Lamprotornis purpureus—a purple starling, which makes its home throughout tropical central Africa.

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

The University where I went to school had many remarkable statues, but the most spectacular was an immense heroic bronze statue of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, biologist, and zoologist who invented the binomial nomenclature we still use to scientifically name and classify living organisms. Including its base, the statue was 20 feet tall and Linnaeus was splendidly dressed in both a Roman toga and an 18th century frock coat (which would probably excessive in most places but not in his native Sweden nor in Chicago).


Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every picture of him!

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every likeness of him!

The statue of Linnaeus is remarkable not just for its size but for the wry look of scarcely contained mirth on the great natural philosopher’s countenance. I had always interpreted this expression as an artistic flourish, but last week, when I was writing about the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), I found reason to wonder whether the look was actually appropriate.

Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus

As I explained in that post, the blue whale is a creature of extraordinary size—an otherworldly giant which dwarfs every other animal ever known. Linnaeus knew this when he gave the whale its binomial scientific name “Balaenoptera musculus” and indeed the name is most appropriate. “Balaenoptera” is from Latin and means “fin whale” an appropriate name for the great rorquals. “Musculus” is also Latin and it means “muscle” an appropriate designation for the most powerful creature on earth. Yet “musculus” is a homonym in Latin: it also can be translated as “little mouse”. Linnaeus was a gifted scholar in both Greek and Latin. He surely knew the ironic double meaning. It must have been a stroke of humor which made him name the largest animal ever after a tiny mouse.


The Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) photo by Bob Hall

Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world.  It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red.   The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy).  Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name.   There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English.  Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.

Cryptocephalus (Burlinius) fulvus, photographed by Josef Dvořák


Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)


The common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) photo by Emmanuel Van Heygen


The Fulvus Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros fulvus) painting by Gray, 1838


The Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)


The Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia)


Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos macei)


The tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)


The Fulvous Limpet (Iothia fulva)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2023