Some Bacteria Are Scary
I was reading the wonderful Harold McGee’s story on salt-rising bread in an old Lucky Peach (a magazine which I, much like a romance novel heroine, was slow to love but now realize is meant for me), when I had a thought. Why the hell are bacteria names so unapproachable? I have a linguistic past; I love languages and learning to pronounce new words. I enjoy googling for the goods, finding pronunciation guides, sounding things out and writing them phonetically when we’re talking about anything from literature to food (a lifetime of proud nerdery, thank you very much). But bacteria names can be so, well, intimidating for those of us who haven’t been trained in the languages of science and worse than that, they so frequently don’t evoke anything at all.
Conversations about Bacteria in Our Food
Before any panties gather themselves into bunches, let me be clear—this isn’t anti-intellectualism or anti-latinism or anti-science-ism. It is merely acceptance that the way we talk about things matters. Would our canis lupus familiaris be such a beloved part of our family if we called her that rather than pup, dog or Laika? If I made pesto from ocimum basilicum (rather than basil) would it smell as sweet? And a garden full of Helianthus annuus doesn’t evoke nearly as much as its common name, Sunflower. Even if these plants would tempt us organoleptically and my pup would be as snuggly, we may not be as prone to talk about them fondly to others, or to feel as connected to them. Our plants and pets have common names because they are things that we talk about in our day to day. We connect with them, and we’re aware of their value and meaning.
Language matters. The way we talk about things impacts the way we think about them and vice versa, which is partially why it’s extraordinarily important that we have correct scientific terms. Official language is important. The language of science is important. But popular language is also important as a way of creating a sense of connection. I’ve seen people wield the scientifically correct names of bacteria like weapons in groups of less knowledgeable fermenters—a way of saying, “Clearly, I know more than you do about this topic.” (BTW, those people are sometimes the ones spouting the worst, scientifically unsupported nonsense.) I’ve also seen extremely well-informed microbiologists speak to groups of eager learners who were happy and eager to know the correct scientific names for the bacteria responsible for their fermentation activities. I’m not saying nix the science, I’m saying let’s have both.
Combatting Bacteria-phobia with Common Sense Language
Perhaps the raging bacteriophobia that plagues our nation could be, in some small part, combatted by a little bit of linguistic familiarity with the microbes that play such an integral part of our lives, whether or not we’re aware of it.
This point was driven home to me last week when I saw Neil Tyson give his energetic lecture on science and culture. One thing I love about NDGT is that he clearly understands that science can be communicated in a way that is both approachable and correct. During his lecture, he gently ribbed his biologist counterparts by noting the way that they name thing versus the way physicists name things. The name The Big Bang evokes something. It tells you what happened and it opens the door to a conversation. The name Hypnum curvifolium (carpet moss), for most of us, seems like a discussion we weren’t invited to participate in.
Perhaps we can bestow complementary monikers on our body microbes to create a more inclusive environment for conversations about our symbionts and the role they play in our personal and planetary well-being.
I have a special love for leuconostoc mesenteroides, since it is often responsible for the kickoff of vegetable fermentation. Just for fun, I’m going to start calling it Leuc (“Look” with a hard ‘k’ sound at the end). Like “Look, there are bubbles in my jar so I know my sauerkraut is fermenting.”
What do you think? What would you name your favorite bacterium if you were trying to befriend it with language?