XKCD cartoon: "Literally"

Why I’m going back to saying “Latin” names

Image: xkcd #725, by Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5

Warning: trivial.

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ve noticed that I frequently return to the fascinating stories behind the scientific, or Latin, names of Earth’s species.  (If you haven’t, you may think using “fascinating” and “Latin names” in the same sentence is a bit much. But I beg to differ.)  But which are they – “scientific names” or “Latin names”?

I began by calling my series “Wonderful Latin Names” (with the story of the hoopoe, Upupa epops, which may be the most fun of all names to say).  But friends pointed out to me, quite correctly, that “Latin name” is a bit of a misnomer, in that many names are in fact not Latin in their etymology at all.  I was (then) persuaded, and beginning with part 4 in the series (the feathered dinosaur Yi qi), I called the series “Wonderful Scientific Names” instead.  It didn’t have the same ring to it, but I decided to use the term that was most literally accurate.

But this decision never sat all that well with me, and I’ve decided to reverse it.  Here’s why.  Taxonomic naming is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants and the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.  Both codes do indeed permit names based on languages other than Latin, or indeed based on no language at all (Klingon is fine, as long as it can be transliterated into the Roman alphabet; so are arbitrary arrangements of letters).  But once formed, or during their formation from other roots, in a number of ways these names are treated as if they were Latin. So calling scientific names “Latin” may not be completely accurate, but it isn’t crazy, either*.

Sure, “Latin names” isn’t a completely, technically accurate term if read literally.  Well, welcome to the English language.  Baby oil isn’t pressed from babies (thank goodness), and something awful doesn’t fill its observer with awe (it once did, but doesn’t any more**). But nobody has any problem understanding the perfectly clear meanings of ‘baby oil’ and ‘awful’.  Whale sharks aren’t whales, ladybugs aren’t bugs, velvetworms aren’t worms, and dragonflies are neither dragons nor flies – and yet none of these names cause any real confusion either.

The term “Latin name” is widely understood to mean a scientific name, whether Latin in origin or not, both by scientists and by the lay public – more so, I’d wager, than the term “scientific name” is!  My temporary rejection of the term was a bit of pedantry that clouded my communication rather than clarifying it. So: back to “Latin names” in future posts (and insofar as I can edit them, in past ones as well).

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) July 5, 2016

Here, by the way, is Alex Bond making the opposing argument.

*^It would be more accurate to refer to “Latinized” names rather than “Latin” names; but that would just make the terminology more jargony and unwieldy.  Jargon has its place, but this isn’t it.

**^Except perhaps in the sense that one might feel awe at the utter, supreme, and probably unmatchable degree of awfulness achieved by Justin Bieber’s early work – but I digress.


11 thoughts on “Why I’m going back to saying “Latin” names

  1. Tony Diamond

    At least “Latin” name is better than the “Genus-species” clunker used by many, especially from the U.S. I am with Alex though in preferring “Scientific” to “Latin” especially as it places the term firmly within science rather than linguistics.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jeffollerton

    I agree with Tony, it’s the “scientific” bit that makes me want to use that term as opposed to “Latin name”, though in every day conversation I tend to swap between the two.

    It’s also worth pointing out that many “common” names of species are also derived from Latin, so if you wanted to be REALLY pedantic you could say that “Latin names” include all “scientific” and some “common” names. But who’d want to be that much of a pedant….? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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