Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#264: Politically Incorrect

A while ago I had a conversation with my friend Valery about the names we humans have applied to certain types of marine life. Specifically, we were talking about critters such as starfish and jellyfish. Both of us learned about these denizens of the deep by those names when we were young children. I know we were very clear about the fact that these were not fish, but invertebrates without backbones and totally unrelated to critters like the kelpfish, garibaldi or great white shark. I'm sure my readers understand this as well.

However, at some point in time the "political correctness" mindset decided that this was not phylogenetically or taxonomically correct. Starfish and jellyfish are not fish... duh! At this point in time it was decided to call them sea stars and sea jellies. Brilliant. Now we can confuse the former with astronomical objects like Betelgeuse, Antares and our own sun (yes, it too is a star)... but hopefully NOT the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie or my personal favorite, Salma Hayek (she's a diver, you know!). Note I didn't even consider Kobe Bryant, Payton Manning or Barry Bonds as stars. All they do is play games... for BIG money. As for the sea jellies, I doubt anyone would confuse them with Smuckers. Besides, they aren't really jellies; they're made of protein... and lots of water.

So now we have created a generation gap. "Mature" folks like Valery and myself refer to starfish and jellyfish, while our kids and future grandkids (please, not yet Kevin and Mary! I'm too young for that.) will refer to the very same beasties as sea stars and sea jellies. Why, I may even have to write different versions of my columns in the future to make sure both generations understand what I'm talking about. At least we share a love for some of the same music (the 60's really were the golden years in my mind... and theirs, even if they weren't "there" and I "was").

Now, I've always thought of myself as considerate (not to mention a gentleman... since I'm not!). Political correctness in cases where folks have referred to people of other races or genders with derogatory or unpleasing words is something I try to avoid at all times. Such labels are deserving of the attention of the P.C. crowd. However, as a trained marine biologist with decades of experience underwater, I have a sneaking professional suspicion that even the most common Linckia columbiae doesn't give a rat's derriere whether I refer to it as a starfish or a sea star. Likewise, Chrysaora colorata probably could care less if you call it a jellyfish or sea jelly. In fact, despite being native to our U.S. waters, I rather doubt either species understands a word of English... much less the Latin names we scientific types apply to them.

Besides, where will the politically "correct" crowd draw the line? As far as I know, our natural sponges would cringe if they knew we applied the same name to them as we do to the rectangle of synthetic fibers with the green backing marketed as Scotch Brite. And fortunately they can't even view an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants since cable TV doesn't reach their ocean habitat. As a biologist, I know for a fact that sea horses have no relationship to Palominos or Kentucky thoroughbreds. Pipefish have no relation to steel, copper or even PVC to the best of my metallurgical, chemical and biological knowledge. The DNA of the ostrich plume hydroid is about as far from that of the bird by that name as two critters can possibly get.

Sea pansies are not flowers, nor could sea pens have been used to sign the Declaration of Independence! Feather duster worms could never make a dent in the soil and soot on my bookshelves. An umbrella crab would be useless against a rainstorm... although during last year's drought, it might have been almost as effective. Heart urchins would be totally unsuitable for a human cardiac transplant (even though some have referred to mine as a "heart of stone"). Bat stars (or bat sea stars if you prefer) are incapable of flying... or eating little gnats and mosquitos at night. Serpent brittle stars have neither fangs nor poison in their mouths.

I can just see these sticklers revising the names in every one of my marine life field guides so they adhere to their version of "correctness." What new names would they come up with to replace those mentioned above... and thousands of others they'd find equally objectionable? Nonsense I say. I'm going to buck this trend and continue to refer to starfish and jellyfish... not to mention sea horses, sea pansies and sea pens... in my columns. I guess you just can't teach an old dog new tricks... er, names. My advice to all those who seek complete adherence to the doctrine of political correctness when it comes to marine critters is this... get a life! As for me, I'll follow the advice of Bill Maher and be "politically incorrect."

© 2007 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" or "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Jellyfish or sea jelly Chrysaora colorata? Sea pen or ??? Starfish or sea star? Sea horse or ???

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
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