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The species was named by ornithologist John Latham in 1790 based on a specimen from the Sydney area of Australia, a country which was known as New Holland at the time. He collaborated on Phillip's book and provided the first descriptions of, and names for, many Australian bird species; Dromaius comes from a Greek word meaning "racer" and novaehollandiae is the Latin term for New Holland, so the name can be rendered as "fast-footed New Hollander". In his original 1816 description of the emu, the French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot used two generic names, first Dromiceius and later Dromaius. It has been a point of contention ever since as to which name should be used; the latter is more correctly formed, but the convention in taxonomy is that the first name given to an organism stands, unless it is clearly a typographical error. Most modern publications, including those of the Australian government, use Dromaius, with Dromiceius mentioned as an alternative spelling.

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