Tag Archives: etymology

Etymology of garter snake

Colin Purrington Photography: Reptiles &emdash; Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)Even though “garter snake” has been the common name for Thamnophis sirtalis for over 200 years, I discovered this week that people who know a lot about garter snakes don’t agree on why. There are two theories: (1) the snakes were named after stocking garters and (2) sirtalis is the Latin word for stocking garters and thus the common name was derived from the Latin binomial. I know, not a burning question for most, but I was curious given that snake fans seem to choose one or the other without further mentioning why. So I looked into it. 

Garter holding up a woman's stocking (from The Practical Costumer)
Photograph of an embroidered garter. Image from the The Pragmatic Costumer (click image to read her article).

(1) Most articles, books, and websites explaining the common name suggest it’s because the snakes resemble garters, pieces of fabric that were fastened right below one’s knee (the garet, in Celtic) to keep stockings from falling down (that used to be a huge problem). The resemblance is lost on most people today, especially guys who don’t know their lingerie history, because garters are now frilly and made of silk or satin and thus not at all snake-like. But back in early Europe they often had lines and patterns that could easily remind somebody of the stripes and scales of a snake. And everyone wore them: women, men, even kings, so they were ubiquitous, visible, and probably conversation starters. So it’s not surprising that somebody eventually referred to a particular type of snake as a “garter” snake. 

In etymology it’s important to establish when a particular word first appears, so I consulted the Online Etymology Dictionary and learned that garter snake first shows up in 1775, in the United States. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the name is related to stocking garter but doesn’t provide proof of this or any links. Curious, I found that “garter snake” shows up even earlier, in 1773, in a description of specimens in somebody’s collection in Lichfield, England. Again, there is no explanation of why the common name was garter. I’m sure the first usage of “garter snake” goes back even further, too, if you had access to a good database of letters and newspaper articles from the time. I don’t.

(2) A potentially related hypothesis for the common name is that sirtalis means “like a garter”. This is exactly the claim thousands scientists and naturalists make. If true, then the common name might have been launched when Linnaeus published his classification in 1758. Alternatively, maybe it just confirms that he knew of the common name and simply applied the Latin cognate for the species. But I was suspicious of this claim because when Latin was a living language there weren’t stockings or the need for garters. Sure enough, when you look up sirtalis in a Latin dictionary, it’s not there. Like many of words Linnaeus used in his binomials, he made it up by combining Latin and Greek roots, leaving us to guess at what the new word might mean. Kraig Adler theorizes that the word might be a combination of siro (Greek for cord, rope, or string) and talis (Latin for such, the like), and thus might mean “ropelike”. So when people claim that sirtalis means “like a garter”, they are incorrect. The first appearance of the “like a garter” claim seems to in 1976, in Robert Parker Hodge’s Amphibians and reptiles in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. I don’t own the book so I’m not sure if he cites somebody, in turn.

Although sirtalis does not mean “like a garter”, I guess it’s possible that Linnaeus had garters in mind when he concocted a rope-like species name for the snake. He probably wore garters, and perhaps called these snakes “garter snakes” before he officially named them. The question, then, is whether the common name predates his scientific name. In looking into this I discovered a second common name that I think was borrowed from German or Dutch: kouse band. The French use serpent jarretier (jarretier means garter), and Swedes use strumpebandssnok. Anyway, it seems that everyone in 1790s Europe, regardless of language, called them snakes-that-look-like-garters. Would be nice to know which language first started to call them by the respective name, but to do that I think I’d need something other than Google’s English-based book search. Note that the 1773 date I mentioned above was found with Google, and thus is probably simply related to my usage of the English-language version. There are likely other databases out there without such language problems.

A deservedly rare explanation for how the garter snake got its name is that it is a misspelling of guarder snake, garden snake, gardener snake, or garten snake. Some of these variants are quite common on the internet, and I think most people can blame their parents. 

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Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t mislead people into thinking the drug can work against viruses and other microorganisms. The problem with “antibiotic” is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that they can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. Part of this confusion is from the word itself (it sounds like it should work against all types of microorganisms). In addition to it sounding like it should be broad drug that can kill all things living, many dictionaries actually suggest exactly that, and that’s actually what the word used to mean. Unfortunately (and this seems to be the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think “antibiotic” is at all confusing to lay people.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. Similarly, disinfectants and pills can contain antivirals. Or antifungals. And if there really was a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. Regardless, some scientists and physicians are already using “antibacterial” as synonym for antibiotic, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent; it’s just too rare that they are doing so.

The issue is more that it’s hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for their entire life. Good examples are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only fully die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the mental power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients or when designing outreach graphics. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics. Even if using “antibacterial” would only reduce overprescription by 5%, the change would be worth doing.

I’m not suggesting that we stop using the word, “antibiotic”. The word is totally fine for conferences, publications, and situations where the context is clear or when there is plenty of time to clarify that they are antibacterials. The word is also invaluable when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested. If you conduct “science literacy” polls, you should read them. The reason is that asking something like, “Will antibiotics treat colds?” is a terrible question. You should be asking, “Do antibacterials kill viruses”. That will assess the science literacy more directly. Sticking with the old question just demonstrates that pollsters are unfamiliar with what “antibiotic” actually means.

You keep using the word antibiotic

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Do antibiotics kill viruses?

Definition of antibioticIf you wonder why most people think antibiotics can treat viral diseases, one reason is that when people use search engines to understand what antibiotics do, they are informed that antibiotics do target viruses. Examples below.


antibiotic: a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms.
microorganism: a microscopic organism, especially a bacterium, virus, or fungus.


antibiotic: any of a large group of chemical substances, as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganism: any organism too small to be viewed by the unaided eye, as bacteria,protozoa, and some fungi and algae.


antibiotic: a substance produced by or a semisynthetic substance derived from a microorganism and able in dilute solution to inhibit or kill another microorganism.
microorganism: an extremely small living thing that can only be seen with a microscope.


antibiotic: A substance, such as penicillin or erythromycin, produced by or derived from certain microorganisms, including fungi and bacteria, that can destroy or inhibit the growth of other microorganisms, especially bacteria. Antibiotics are widely used in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganismany organism, such as a bacterium, protozoan, or virus, of microscopic size.

Britannica Library:

antibiotic:  chemical substance produced by a living organism, generally a microorganism, that is detrimental to other microorganisms. Antibiotics commonly are produced by soil microorganisms and probably represent a means by which organisms in a complex environment, such as soil, control the growth of competing microorganisms.
microorganisms: living things that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. They are normally viewed using a microscope. Bacteria, viruses, and some molds are examples of microorganisms.


antibiotic: Any substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and similar microorganisms.
microorganism: An organism that is too small to be seen by the unaided eye, especially a single-celled organism, such as a bacterium.

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