Posts Tagged ‘Georg Wilhelm Steller’

The English language often makes strange artifacts.

Perhaps nothing is more strange than a common spelling for the name of this animal.

It is the largest of the eared seal family (Otariidae), and it is native to the North Pacific from the Kuril Islands to Central California.

And its name in American English is “Steller sea lion.”

However, it often spelled “stellar sea lion.”

Steller and stellar are not synonyms.

Stellar is defined as follows:

adj. 1. Of, relating to, or consisting of stars. 2. a. Of or relating to a star performer. b. Outstanding; principal.

This species, like all sea lions, lives in the ocean.

It has nothing to do the stars.

Now one might say that because the sea lion is the largest of its family that it is “outstanding” or “principal.”

But that’s not why it has that name in the first place.

“Steller”in the sea lion’s name refers to a person– a famous naturalist, to be exact.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was a Bavarian-born naturalist and physician who joined Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. He had spent most of  his adult life in St. Petersburg.

Steller’s family’s original name was Stöhler or Stöller.

It has nothing to do with the stars. It’s just that the name has been translated as Steller.

On that expedition, Steller described several species for first time, and many of these animals still bear Steller’s name.

We have the extinct Steller’s sea cow, a very large northern relative of the manatee.

We also have the huge Steller’s sea eagle.

We have Steller’s jay.

Steller’s eider.

And in every case, these animals are called “Steller’s.”

Note the possessive “‘s.”

With the sea lion, it always called the Steller sea lion.

Maybe it’s because the next letter of the next word is an s that we have tended to leave the possessive off of it.

I don’t know.

But it causes a lot of confusion in spelling. Just google “Stellar seal lion.” You’ll get hits.

Therefore, it better for us to call this species “Steller’s sea lion.”

It prevents a common spelling error, and it also clearly attaches this animal to Herr Steller, the great naturalist who went on this voyage of discovery– and never returned. On his way back to St. Petersburg in 1746 , he contracted a fever and died.

The English language has perverted the name of this sea lion.

It is too common to call it a Stellar sea lion.

But it is not of the stars.

It is of the North Pacific– and named for Georg Wilhelm Steller.

That’s what its name means.

It takes less  than a tenth of a second to type an “‘s.”

Steller’s sea lion.

Not a bad name at all.




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