As a graduate student I came across the word “speciose”. It had an alluring sound to it that was lacking in its more pedestrian synonym “species-rich”. Equally appealing, I suspect, was the fact that it supplied a formal-sounding alternative that was less accessible to the average person. (If you’re lucky, you outgrow that affectation and learn that clear communication is what matters most.)
In the December issue of TREE, Michael Hart delves into the origin and use of the word speciose. Although similar to “species”, speciose actually shares a root derives from “specious” in ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’. Hart sees value in speciose – it’s no longer than “species-rich” and solves the hyphenation problem (i.e., the problem of not knowing when to join the words “species” and “rich” with a hyphen). Both “species-rich” and “speciose” first show up in the Web of Knowledge database in 1957, and use of both terms has grown fairly consistently. Although he cites Gill’s plea to cease ‘the misuse of ‘‘speciose’’ in the evolutionary biological literature,’ Hart sees value in this “lovely word” and urges “deliberate consideration” as to its future and fate.
I embraced “speciose” in my first or second year as a grad student. I happily embraced it, using it both in writing and conversation. And then, to my horror, I discovered Gill or some other pedant who insisted that “speciose” was being misused by ecologists. With that discovery, I discontinued use of speciose immediately. The only thing worse than using big words is misusing them. Granted, it had been wearing thin already – my doctoral advisor, for example, had seen no inclination to adopt the word despite my repeated use of it.
And that’s where it’s stood ever since, for me, until now. Granted, Al Gentry used to word, and being as amazing a biologist as he was, he had the right to use whatever word he wanted, however he wanted to…and be right. After all, he was Al Gentry. (And he had tragically passed away, doing a rapid assessment of biodiversity.)
Reading Hart made me re-think my opposition to “speciose”. We have the right to re-define words from time to time. This might be a good candidate. I’m not sure if it’s for me, but I should be willing to accept that it is, after all, an acceptable term.
Hart, Michael W. 2008. Speciose versus species-rich. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23 (12):660-661 doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.09.001