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arabidopsis in print

Tobias Baskin baskin at biosci.mbp.missouri.edu
Wed Feb 26 11:49:36 EST 1997

        There are two different issues, one is italics, the other is
capitalization. The rule for capitalization is very simple: the genus name
is always capitalized and the species name is never capitalized. No one has
any problem with this in writing binomials. But for some reason a habit has
developed to retain the capital when the genus name gets used as a common
name for the species. In writing "this breathtaking Arabidopsis mutant",
the word "Arabidopsis" is being used as the common name, like pea or wheat
for those species, and not to refer to the genus, Arabidopsis, and so
should not be capitalized. Despite the fact that this habit totally
violates a long standing rule of taxonomy, it has become so ingrained that
many editors and journals INSIST on the capital. I don't know why this
habit started, (laziness?) but the same has happend for drosophila and
xenopus, among others, and I don't think at this point that anything can be

        The italics issue is much more slippery. Again, we start with a
rule: foreign words are set in italics. Everyone (except Cell) agrees that
binomial names are set in italic, because by *definition* binomial names
are latin (the fossil rodent found in the Southwest American desert, called
Mus truthorconsequencesensis, is a good example of a non latin word
becoming a latin word by virtue of its presence in a binomial--and no, I am
not making this up--if you discovered a fossil mouse out by
Truthorconsequences, New Mexico, could you resit?). The trouble with
foreign words is that while they start out foreign they wind up as part of
English. So, there are a whole string of words or phrases, et cetera, et
alia, per se, in vitro, e.g., that always used to be set in italics but now
have become such a regular part of English that they are rarely italicized.
But there is obviously no hard and fast line, and every editor must decide
for themselves if "protege" or "denouement" or "de novo"  etc. etc. has
made it into English. So, using as a common name the word "arabidopsis",
which clearly originally was a foreign word, there is no absolute way to
say that it still is foreign or instead has become English. Presumably, we
on the list consider "arabidopsis" as good an English word as, say
"pudding", and can suggest that there is no need for italics when
"arabidopsis" is used as the common name of our favorite weed. Perhaps some
editors will listen.

        And yes, I have "taxes" to do, so this some innocent displacement

        But I still hope it helps,
                                Tobias Baskin

      _      ____   ^      __   ____   Tobias I. Baskin
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