Stupid Science Word of the Month

Phthiria relativitae, n. Pronunciation: \theory o’relativity\

Thursday, July 26, 2007

When Neal Evenhuis, entomologist at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, identified a new species of bee fly from the American Southwest ascribed to the genus Phthiria, he couldn’t resist having a little fun. In deciding on a species name, he recalls, “I thought, well, what can I do that would go with Phthiria—I’m thinking, gravitae? But then I thought of relativitae, because I could do a Latin etymology for it: ‘relating to life.’ So I got Phthiria relativitae out of that.” The next challenge was to find a journal willing to publish the name, making it an official part of the taxonomic record. “When you do something like that,” Evenhuis says, “sometimes the reviewers or editors may not have a sense of humor.”

So Evenhuis decided to send Phthiria relativitae overseas, where the English-language jokes could fly under the radar. “I submitted it to a Polish journal and they published it, no questions asked,” he says.

Evenhuis later had to change the species' name to Poecilognathus relativitae to more accurately represent its taxonomy, but no one can erase the time when the bug shared its name with Einstein's greatest contribution to science.

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