Shakespeare famously asked, “What's in a name?” However, according to the US politician Hubert Humphrey, “In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be.”
Humphrey had a point. The importance of names is reflected in the vast sums spent by companies on (sometimes disastrous) renaming exercises and the many hours new parents devote to agonising over a name for their son or daughter. Names are also important in science. So much so that a large group of neurobiologists, including, but not limited to, researchers working on the avian brain, have undertaken a concerted effort to change the nomenclature of avian neuroanatomy (p 151).
Why should it matter whether the outer part of a bird's brain is called the hyperstriatum or the hyperpallium? Because these words carry clear implications about the relationship between this part of the avian brain and various parts of the mammalian brain. 'Hyperstriatum' implies a homology with the mammalian striatal regions, whereas 'hyperpallium' more accurately implies similarities to the mammalian pallium, which includes the cortex and carries out 'higher' functions. It is now clear that the assumed homologies on which the original nomenclature was based were wrong, and the new names more accurately reflect the roles and homologies of various parts of the avian brain.
The leaders of this project made a great effort to include as much of the avian neurobiology community as possible. After all, a new nomenclature that was proposed and adopted by only a minority of researchers would lead to more confusion, not less. It is to be hoped that the new names will be widely used and will lead to greater understanding and communication between researchers who work on mammalian and avian brains.
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In this issue. Nat Rev Neurosci 6, 87 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1616