I got the archaeology bug early. Not the kind where you spend the day in the broiling sun on your hands and knees scraping away nano-wafers of dirt with an eyeliner brush. The kind you can do from your recliner. I like to dig for artifacts in the language. English is full of buried treasure.

It probably goes back to the day my dad told me that the Latin name for puffball mushroom, Lycoperdon, means “wolf farts.”

I’ve had the habit of looking up the meanings of organisms’ names ever since. Gymnogyps, the condor genus, means “naked vulture.” It’s a whole genus all right but the California condor is the only one that’s not extinct now and it’s hanging on by a tail feather. Not a head feather, though, because, like most vultures, they have naked heads, which is said to be helpful for hygienic purposes when you spend a lot of time neck deep in a stinky carcass. At least that’s what most people have assumed is the rationale, even though vultures are not over-delicate and have a number of habits we would find revolting in a human, such as peeing on their feet and vomiting at strangers. So the bald head might have more to do with maintaining temperature. After all, a vulture might have to dine away on dead wildebeest in the hot desert and then soar to an altitude below freezing without changing her suit. But if you have a nice fat neck ruffle to tuck your head into when you’re cold, and can stretch your bald head out when you’re hot, you’ve got a little more control over things.

Anyway the original point is their name comes from the Greek for naked, and yes, gymnasium comes from the same root, because it is the place where strapping young Greek lads got together naked and, let’s say, wrestled. Don’t tell Florida Governor Ron DeSantis though, or he’ll be compelled to eliminate school gymnasiums in favor of a chaste program of squat thrusts in the classrooms formerly devoted to history.

I do know that looking up Latinized taxonomic names isn’t really a proper etymological enterprise. It’s more like fishing in a barrel, but it’s still fun. The names were all assigned by individuals relatively recently and did not evolve organically over time. Linnaeus got the ball rolling with his method of naming organisms using binomials, with a genus name like Gymnogyps followed by a species name such as the now-superfluous californicus. These names can be descriptive or comedic or self-serving, such as if you’re Joe Blow and happen on a previously unnamed item and get to name it Joe Blow’s tiny little armpit-crevice beetle. And they can be changed when new information is discovered that indicates, for instance, that the critter has had some other ancestor in the woodpile, or if Joe Blow is discovered to have owned slaves.

Linnaeus did most of the initial heavy lifting but he didn’t know all the organisms, and people have been slabbing Latinized names on things ever since. Our friend the puffball, for instance, was given its name by a fellow named Christiaan Hendrik Persoon in 1796. Mr. Persoon is “generally known as the founding father of systematic mycology,” although how generally known that makes him is probably up to debate. He didn’t get around all that much. He was orphaned at three, never married, and lived in a squalid flat in Paris where he named mushrooms right and left. However I must assert that anyone who looked at the little scatterings of puffball mushrooms that blew up like bubbles and pooted spores into the air and thought “wolf farts” was not an irredeemable hermit.

In fact, I’d say he was a fun guy.