Networked names: synonyms in eighteenth-century botany

Bettina Dietz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This paper addresses early modern botanical nomenclature, the practices of identifying and publishing synonyms in particular, as a collaborative “information science”. Before Linnaean nomenclature became the lingua franca of botany, it was inevitable that, over time, the same plant was given several names by different people, which created confusion and made communication among botanists increasingly difficult. What names counted as synonyms and actually referred to the same plant had to be identified by meticulously comparing living and dried specimens of this and similar plants as well as relevant illustrations und descriptions in the botanical literature. Identifying synonyms required and generated an ever-expanding mass of data, which was used continuously to adjust and rearrange plant names. Despite the greatest care, judgements on synonyms were not definitive, which meant that published lists of synonyms for individual species of plants were in a state of flux and had to be constantly updated, corrected, and rewritten. This required long-term international collaborations, the accumulated results of which were not published once but consecutively, in augmented and corrected editions of a book. As a result of this networked approach, synonyms are networked names that reflect the epistemic interconnectedness of the botanical community. These questions will be discussed with a focus on the Dutch botanist Johannes Burman (1706–1779), who placed synonyms at the centre of his work as posthumous editor—and co-author—of the botanical manuscripts that were left behind by other botanists.

Original languageEnglish
Article number46
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Issue number4
Early online date17 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019

Scopus Subject Areas

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • Botanical nomenclature
  • Charles Plumier
  • Eighteenth-century botany
  • Johannes Burman
  • Paper technologies
  • Paul Hermann
  • Synonyms


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