“Latin” names that aren’t Latin

Image: Razorbill (Alca torda), photo S. Heard.

My friend Alex is nearly as pedantic as I am. Now and again on Twitter one of us will revel in correcting the other (in a friendly yet taunting manner) on some point of grammar or usage. Recently he got me good: what I’ve been calling “Latin names” all my life (for instance, here, here, and here) are not always “Latin” at all. I knew this perfectly well, of course, but nonetheless have been a bit sloppy. Alex points out here that “scientific names” is a more accurate term [edit: for a while, I used “scientific name” on Scientist Sees Squirrel; but I’ve changed my mind and reverted to “Latin name”]. I should have made this clearer, earlier.

But on to the issue that made me eat crow. While a large fraction of Latin names have Latin derivations, there are examples of names based on words from many, many languages. Greek is of course the next most common (the crow I ate, Corvus brachyrhynchos, has a Latin genus name but a Greek specific epithet). But there are many less obvious ones; for instance, I recently blogged about the Arabic derivation of Abudefduf. So I thought it would be fun to dig up some good examples, and to increase the fun, here they are in the form of a quiz. I’ll give you the scientific name; see if you can guess the linguistic root of the part of the name in red. (Answers below a jump).

Haootia quadriformis, an Ediacaran cnidarian

Alca torda, the razorbill

Dearcmhara shawcrossi, an ichthyosaur

Nundasuchus songeaensis, a Triassic archosaur (roughly, crocodilian)

Affecauda rugosa, a fluke (parasitic flatworm)

Patellapis hakkiesdraadi, a bee

Erythroxylum coca, the coca plant

Tarchia kielanae, a dinosaur

Cafeteria roenbergensis, a microflagellate

Slonik sibiricus, a weevil

Alpinia galangal, galangal

Tsuga canadensis, eastern hemlock

Bruhathkayosaurus matleyi, another dinosaur

Tiktaalik rosaeae, fossil lobe-finned fish

Marah fabaceus, California manroot (a wild cucumber)

OK, time to find out how you did (tell me in the comments). Here’s the jump to the answers:













Haootia quadriformis, an Ediacaran cnidarian: Beothuk “spirit” or “demon” (the Beothuk were an indigenous people of Newfoundland)

Alca torda, the razorbill: Icelandic “auk”

Dearcmhara shawcrossi, an ichthyosaur: Gaelic “marine lizard”, pronounced “jack-vara”!

Nundasuchus songeaensis, a Triassic archosaur (roughly, crocodilian): Swahili nunda = “predator” (plus Greek suchus, “crocodile”).

Affecauda rugosa, a fluke (parasitic flatworm): German affe = “monkey” (plus Latin cauda, “tail”)

Patellapis hakkiesdraadi, a bee: Afrikaans “barbed wire”, for its bristles

Erythroxylum coca, the coca plant: Quechua (name for the coca plant)

Tarchia kielanae, a dinosaur: Mongolian “brain”

Cafeteria roenbergensis, a microflagellate: English, for its indiscriminate diet

Slonik sibiricus, a weevil: Russian “little elephant”

Alpinia galangal, galangal: Arabic (meaning uncertain)

Tsuga canadensis, eastern hemlock: Japanese “hemlock”

 Bruhathkayosaurus matleyi, another dinosaur: Sanskrit bruhath + kāya = “huge body” (+ Latin saurus = “lizard”)

Tiktaalik rosaeae, fossil lobe-finned fish: Inuktitut “burbot”

Marah fabaceus, California manroot (a wild cucumber): Hebrew “bitter”

How did you do?

If you liked these, there’s a much longer list at Curious Taxonomy (some but not all of my examples are there, along with a cornucopia of other Latin-name-based amusement).

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) March 23 2015


8 thoughts on ““Latin” names that aren’t Latin

  1. Wendell

    I got zero. I gave the French credit for Cafeteria. In one sense, “Latin names” might make sense. My understanding is that the official species descriptions were written in Latin (at least until quite recently).


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