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I'm building a fantasy world and I am building the animals that inhabit it. Now I am working on the animals that live in this world, and after building their anatomy, I wonder about their names.

I'm not talking about names like 'Chicken' or 'Red Panda' which are often made up names or come from the names I am interested in. I'm talking about scientific names, like Homo Sapiens or Canis Familiaris

So here's the question: is there some formula or rule I can follow to make scientific species' names sound similar and unique?

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    $\begingroup$ Derivation and Examples $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Sep 19 '16 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeNichols I'd suggest turning that into an answer $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Sep 19 '16 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ You may find The Naming of the Shrew interesting. It covers the formation of scientific names. Its a little dry, but interesting. $\endgroup$ – Obsidian Phoenix Sep 20 '16 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ The scientific name of many species is really just a bland description, just in latin or faux-latin. Canis Familiaris is just "family dog". $\endgroup$ – Jason K Sep 20 '16 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonK Not all are boring, though! Take Eucritta melanolimnetes, an extinct giant amphibian. Translated, it's scientific name means "the creature from the black lagoon". Scientists like to have fun sometimes :) $\endgroup$ – ckersch Sep 20 '16 at 18:55
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Use Binomial Nomenclature

Part of what makes scientific names sound consistent is that they're part of a formal system called binomial nomenclature. If you apply the same system to the names of your fantasy creatures, they'll have a similar feel.

In binomial nomenclature, a creature's name is comprised of two words, a genus and a specie. There are other parts of the taxonomy of a creature, such as phylum or family (though this is partially dependent on what taxonomic system you're using), though these are not considered part of the creature's name. Subspecies is sometimes included, such as in Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, but this should only be done for very closely related creatures.

Start with Latin or Latin-sounding Roots

Not all names in binomial nomenclature are Latin. Many of Linnaeus's original names, like Rhododendron, for example, are Greek. However, most of them are tweaked to sound Latin. Erythroxylum, for example, comes from Greek roots, but has "-um" in place of its normal Greek suffix to appear more Latin.

You can take many words, especially words that are already based in other languages, and latinize them in this manner. For example, if you want a name for a medusa, you could go with Gorgonum medusii, referring to a creature called a medusa from the genus gorgon. Technically, "Medusii" would be used if this were a gorgon discovered by someone named Medusa, but most people don't know Latin well enough to tell exactly what's proper usage and what's not, so you can play fast and loose with your latinized suffixes if you want.

It's also common for words to be made up of several Latin roots that describe the creature, rather than just being a latinized word like "medusa". If we wanted a different name for our medusa, we could use something like Gorgonum oculomortis, (the first word is capitalized, the second is not) which means, roughly, "The gorgon with the deadly gaze." Again, you don't have to be precise. Google a few descriptive Latin words and mash 'em together.

Cluster similar species by genus

Lastly, you probably want to cluster your species by genus. Figure out what animals are fairly similar to each other, and give them the same name. If you have an American medusa, for example, you could call it Gorgonum americanae, again without capitalizing the second word, even though it comes from a proper noun.

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    $\begingroup$ Quick fix: Medusa discovered herself. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Sep 20 '16 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 "Excuse me, you appear to be missing an entry on a certain species. Hello? Well, no need to get all stone faced. I'll just leave my research here." $\endgroup$ – Yakk Sep 20 '16 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. I'd add that place names often have the suffix "-ensis" in species names: canadensis, madagascariensis, japanensis, and so on. The OP could also make the naming system more 'fantasy' by reversing the Real Life tradition of (usually) making the species name with masculine nouns. So instead of the black bear being Ursus americanus (masculine), the fantasy world black bear would be Ursa americana (feminine). $\endgroup$ – DrBob Sep 21 '16 at 17:29
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ckersch missed a good point. There are lots of animals named after people, it is sometimes discoverer or some famous people or even fictional characters. They generally have -i at the end. There is a wiki page if you are interested. Couple of examples:

  • Agra schwarzeneggeri
  • Bagheera kiplingi
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    $\begingroup$ At the same time, there's a difference between being realistic and seeming realistic to the average reader, and going this route, at least in my opinion, puts you at risk of being on the wrong side of that line. $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Sep 19 '16 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ You could simply explain that: Pauline the botanist first discovered Astragalus fisheri on Planet Medusa in year 2055, naming them after her favourite scientist Ronald Fisher. $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Sep 20 '16 at 6:30
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Very good answer from ckersch - use that for your core information. But here’s a few additional ideas. This Wikipedia article has a list of useful words for making species names.

Here are some Real World rules on naming creatures after people or groups of people.

Traditionally, the genus part of scientific names of animals take the masculine form of the noun (ending in –us, Ursus, Equus, Tyrannosaurus) more often than they take the feminine form (ending in –a, Loxodonta, Giraffa, Maiasaura) or the neuter form (ending in –um, -e, -erum, Eledone). Confusingly, words ending in –is (Canis, Felis) are sometimes masculine sometimes feminine. If you want your world to be a bit different, then change that ratio by ‘feminising’ or ‘neutering’ the word: Equa instead of Equus, Ursum instead of Ursus.

You can use the same word for both the genus and species name. Examples include Meles meles (Eurasian badger), Vulpes vulpes (red fox) and Gorilla gorilla (western gorilla). This will usually be because the animal in question is the first one of its kind to be named. Sometimes simply because it was common in the land where the naming system was invented!

You can make compound names by using a common suffix which describes your animal. So, for instance teuthis means ‘squid’, while myrmex (Greek) and formica (Latin) both mean ‘ant’. Thus there are a whole slew of squid with names such as: Architeuthis, Magistoteuthis, Histoteuthis. And a whole bunch of ants called things like Teratomyrmex, Brachymyrmex, Iberoformica, Proformica and so on. This means that is if you have a group of animals in your world which are of one type – dragons, for instance – you can use one word to make your species more diverse. Draco = Latin for dragon, so...

Basilodraco volans – the king dragon which flies

Teratodraco siluriensis – the monster dragon from the land of the Silures (a bit of Wales)

Place names can end in –ensis or –iensis (Draco madagascariensis, Draco senegalensis, Draco canadensis) as well as the traditional –us or –a endings (Draco tibetanus, Draco americana).

If you want to name bigger groups of creatures you can use family names. A family is a higher taxonomic grouping which includes all the species of that sort. Animal family names end in –idae and plant family names end in –aceae. For instance, Canidae (the canine family - dogs, foxes and wolves), Felidae (cats), Formicidae (ants), Rosaceae (rose family), Brassicaceae (cabbage family). You do not italicise family names.

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If it's a fantasy world, why pattern it after how species are named in this world? That makes for some of the laziest sci-fi.

Instead, briefly imagine an alternative way of naming species. Perhaps your fantasy society uses numbers, and species are named like Social Security numbers (or an equivalent numbering scheme, such as driver license's numbers). Even with those, you can parse the details-of-interest. For example, the first three digits of SS numbers can reveal the state of origin.

What if numbers seem too tough for your average citizens? Perhaps they have disassociated themselves from common science, and simply leave the work to automatons - in which case, the numbering scheme makes perfect sense. This raises an interesting question - what kind of science would be produced just by robots? Would it be kind to non-robots? Cruel? In turn, this story could point out the outcome of a society where science is no longer engaging society in a broader sense.

That's sci-fi - to depart from our reality, explore others, and sometimes reflect back onto the original.

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    $\begingroup$ It is not lazy, as in my world, humans are catagorizing the world $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Sep 20 '16 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ Understanding the whys and structures of our own naming conventions is a good place to start. It should make sense, at the very least. There's no need to be a jerk about it and the profanity is seriously unnecessary. I haven't downvoted this answer myself, but I don't think I will need to...other people have beaten me to it. I see you are a new user. Please be less of a jackhole or don't answer. You're welcome. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Sep 20 '16 at 3:16

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