The gender of the generic name Acis

Jim McKenney
Thu, 17 Feb 2005 17:34:07 PST
Last year we had a lively scuffle full of repartee, bons mots and divergent
opinion when the topic of the separation of the genera Leucojum and Acis
was discussed. One aspect of that discussion in which I took a particular
interest was the etymology of the word Acis. Several of us, myself
included, jumped into the discussion under the assumption that the Acis in
question was the Acis of poetry, of Acis and Galatea fame. 

An IPNI search suggests that contemporary botanists seem to be treating the
genus Acis as a feminine word. The Acis of the Acis and Galatea story is a
male character - and his name in Latin is masculine in gender. 

When this was pointed out, Jane McGary provided a plausible alternative:
the feminine Greek word akis (or as it would be written in Latin, acis)
which means, among other things, a pointed object. Anyone who has seen the
foliage of Acis will be persuaded of this choice.

Always the sceptic, I have been trying to see a copy of Salisbury's
Paradisus Londinensis to ascertain just what Salisbury's intentions might
have been. After several false starts, the staff at the National
Agricultural Library have come through: today, I examined Salisbury's account.

Here is what Salisbury says (he uses the spelling Leucoium instead of the
modern Leucojum, a spelling which does not change the pronunciation if you
use the Latin system, although it makes a big difference if you use the
English systems) :

"In the 21st number of this work, I expressed a suspicion that Leucoium
Autumnale, from its very different habit, would constitute a genus: that
plant afterwards ripened seeds, which have left no doubt about the matter,
being comparatively large, whitish, irregularly angulated, and more like
bulbs than the black round seeds of Leucoium. Accordingly, it is necessary
to give another generic character, and to the narrow-leaved species, I
shall in future apply the poetic title of Acis..."

Note that Salisbury cites the new genus name but does not combine it with a
specific epithet: although it is clear that he had in mind what had been
known up until then as Leucoium autumnale, he does not spell out the
specific epithet in the new combination. Thus, we are denied a clue with
respect to the gender he intended. (Autumnalis would be either masculine or
feminine, autumnale would be neuter).

My contention is that Salisbury had in mind Acis, hero of the Acis and
Galatea story.  And my whole argument rests on Salisbury's use of the word
"poetic" to describe his choice of names. In a quick review of other
generic names used in Salisbury's work, ordinary workaday Greek words used
to name plants were not described as "poetic". In fact, the only other use
of this word which I noticed occurs in his description of Calypso, which
name is described as a "poetic name". 

I'm satisfied that Salisbury had in mind the names of classical personae
for these words, and not simple descriptive words. 

From this I conclude (but read on) that the genus Acis should be masculine. 

However, I know that the ways of formal botany are sometimes arcane, or at
least not obvious to the curious layperson. So my question to the group is
this: can anyone tell me why Acis is being treated as a feminine word?

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where I think I've asked a
pointed question. 

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