Even in rural Devon there is no escape from taxonomy.

The donkeys of Sidmouth’s Sanctuary are gathered together in fields and barns according to their prior histories, vision (or lack thereof), podiatric or respiratory problems and, in the case of Poitou donkeys, breed.  They are described by their place of origin, sex, age, and temperament. They all have names. And they are classified, like stars and George Perec’s books, by colour. Each animal has one or more large plastic collars about its neck. The bands come in different shades, offering a quick signpost for the sanctuary’s workers (many of them volunteers) to individual dietary and medical requirements. It’s a quick and clever way to make sure that each donkey gets the right meal and medicine.

Throughout history donkeys have been symbols of determination, intelligence (and stupidity), strength, peace, humility and versatility. The pregnant Mary was carried upon one. Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey’s back. Midas, and the Irish king Breas, had donkey’s ears in their respective legends (Sarah Morris, a classicist at UCLA, has argued that donkey’s ears were a royal attribute in Bronze Age Anatolia). But donkeys also provide metaphors for questions in classification, such as those related to:

Definition: Donkeys provided a test case in a recent zoological controversy over whether domesticated and wild animals ought to be given different formal taxonomic descriptions.

Etymology: ‘Donkey’ is one of the relatively small number of English words (in excellent company alongside curmudgeon, transmogrify, pixie, strawberry and skedaddle) whose etymological origins are unknown or unclear.

Substitution: Until the eighteenth century, donkeys were referred to as asses. Modern usage has replaced a previously popular synonym homophonic with an anatomical term used as a term of abuse, just as roosters were once cocks, and rabbits coneys.


A sketch by British comedians The Two Ronnies explores the comic potential of a public library’s colour-based classification scheme. But the idea is not so absurd. Arrangement by colour is, in private libraries at least, an established way of shelving one’s books.

Stars, too, can be arranged by colour. Under the Morgan-Keenan system, the classification most commonly used by stellar astronomers, our sun is a G2V, with translates as “a ‘yellow’ two tenths towards ‘orange’ main-sequence star”. Library classifications are not arbitrary, and neither are stellar ones. As library classmarks provide a shorthand for bibliographical content, Morgan-Keenan colours designate spectral class, which describes the ionization of the photosphere, itself a measure of a star’s temperature.

Most stars are classified using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, with O stars the hottest and M the coolest. O stars are called ‘blue’, B stars ‘blue-white’, A stars ‘white’, F stars ‘yellow-white’, G stars ‘yellow’, K stars ‘orange’, and M stars ‘red’. A number indicates tenths of the range between two successive classes, and the Roman numerals I to VII the star’s luminosity, which is indicative of its size.

Library classification tends to evolve over time to reflect socio-political changes. Stellar classification remains fixed, though the objects themselves slide through the scheme, over billions of years, before falling out altogether. Stellar classification has hard boundaries, and at the end of a star’s life, the remnants (neutron stars, black holes, and exotic stars), though still astronomical objects, can no longer be schematically described.