Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 135–189 | Cite as

Suppressing Synonymy with a Homonym: The Emergence of the Nomenclatural Type Concept in Nineteenth Century Natural History

  • Joeri WitteveenEmail author
Open Access


‘Type’ in biology is a polysemous term. In a landmark article, Paul Farber (Journal of the History of Biology 9(1): 93–119, 1976) argued that this deceptively plain term had acquired three different meanings in early nineteenth century natural history alone. ‘Type’ was used in relation to three distinct type concepts, each of them associated with a different set of practices. Important as Farber’s analysis has been for the historiography of natural history, his account conceals an important dimension of early nineteenth century ‘type talk.’ Farber’s taxonomy of type concepts passes over the fact that certain uses of ‘type’ began to take on a new meaning in this period. At the closing of the eighteenth century, terms like ‘type specimen,’ ‘type species,’ and ‘type genus’ were universally recognized as referring to typical, model members of their encompassing taxa. But in the course of the nineteenth century, the same terms were co-opted for a different purpose. As part of an effort to drive out nomenclatural synonymy – the confusing state of a taxon being known to different people by different names – these terms started to signify the fixed and potentially atypical name-bearing elements of taxa. A new type concept was born: the nomenclatural type. In this article, I retrace this perplexing nineteenth century shift in meaning of ‘type.’ I uncover the nomenclatural disorder that the new nomenclatural type concept dissolved, and expose the conceptual confusion it left in its tracks. What emerges is an account of how synonymy was suppressed through the coinage of a homonym.


history of taxonomic nomenclature type concept Method of Type type method type specimen codes of nomenclature Carolus Linnaeus William Whewell John Obadiah Westwood Hugh Edwin Strickland John Edward Gray Paul Farber 



Most of the research for this article was done under the sponsorship of Trinity College, Cambridge, and during visiting fellowships at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Evolution and Cognition Research, and at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities. Their financial support is gratefully acknowledged. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at ISHPSSB 2013 in Montpellier, at &HPS 2014 in Vienna, and at the ‘The Artificial and the Natural’ workshop at Exeter University in 2014. I thank David Depew, Chris DiTeresi, Paul Farber, Jim Griesemer, Matt Haber, Tarquin Holmes, Charlie Jarvis, Tim Lewens, Gordon McOuat, Staffan Müller-Wille, Greg Radick, Nicolaas Rupke, Kees Rookmaaker, Sara Scharf, Laura Synder, and Polly Winsor for their feedback, discussion, and encouragement. Special thanks go to Ann Charlton from the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, for providing access to correspondence from the Strickland Papers in the midst of renovations. I dedicate this paper to the memory of the KLI’s scientific director, Werner Callebaut.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the HumanitiesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Religious StudiesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

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