Wonderful Latin Names: Salacca zalacca 

Images: Salacca zalacca, botanical print from unknown source, presumed public domain; via Swallowtail Garden Seeds.  Salak fruits by Midori CC BY-3.0 via wikimedia.org.

 Latin names have a reputation as horribly difficult to pronounce.  Sometimes this is true: I’ve worked on the moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis for over 20 years, and I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly.  But other Latin names roll wonderfully off the tongue: the clove tree Syzygium and the hoopoe Upupa epops, for example.

Few roll as wonderfully off the tongue as Salacca zalacca, though.

Salacca zalacca is an Indonesian palm grown for its fruit, the salak or snakefruit. (I’ve never tasted one, but Wikipedia suggests that it’s apple-like, sweet-tart with an astringent note.)  It’s nearly as much fun to type as it is to say: Salacca zalacca.

How did the salak palm end up with such a mellifluous Latin name?  As is probably obvious, both Salacca and zalacca are Latinizations of the common name, the Malay “salak”. So-called “Latin” names are indeed Latinized, but their roots can be in any language. (Well, almost any language.)  It’s peculiar, though, that the salak got slightly different Latinizations in its genus and species names. You might suspect some botanist of getting a little too cute, but in fact it’s an artifact of circumstance.  The salak palm was first named by Joseph Gaertner in 1791, as Calamus zalacca.  However, in 1825 Caspar Reinwardt established the genus Salacca, and the next year described the salak as (sensibly enough) Salacca edulis.  Reinwardt was presumably unaware of Gaertner’s previous naming.  That’s unsurprising, for two reasons.  First, Reinwardt was working in the Malay Archipelago, where he had great access to exotic plants but more limited access to botanical literature.  Second, at the time most species descriptions were appearing in monographs and, with online searching still centuries in the future, it was very easy for one taxonomist to miss the earlier work of another*.

The salak’s naming confusion was cleared up in 1895, when Andreas Voss pointed out that while the salak palm did indeed belong in the genus Salaccca, the older species name zalacca had priority over edulis.  The proper name, thus, is Salacca zalacca (Gaertn.) Voss.  “Salacca zalacca” is an accident, then – but a happy one.

By the way, Salacca zalacca is very nearly, but not quite, a tautonym.  A tautonym is a Latin name with identical genus and species parts – and tautonyms aren’t allowed for plants.  (For animals, naming is governed by a slightly different Code, and tautonyms are OK – giving us among many others the onomatopoetic corncrake Crex crex and the rather silly fish Boops boops**.)  In fact, Salacca zalacca is probably the closest the plant kingdom comes to a tautonym (none of the other near misses listed here are as close).  Does this matter?  Only if you’re as nerdishly obsessed with peculiarities of Latin nomenclature as I am.  Since you’re apparently still reading this, I’m going to go with “yes” on that one.

Say it again: Salacca zalacca.  Isn’t it fun?

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) July 11, 2017

*^It still happens today, just less frequently.  Some day I’m going to write up the story of Cepa alex (a fly), which almost got to be the palindromic Xela alex except for a pesky bit of nomenclatural priority.  It’s a better story than it sounds like.

**^Perhaps fortunately for Boops boops’s dignity, the name doesn’t rhyme with “poops”.  Instead, it’s pronounced “boh-ops”, from the Greek for cow (Bos) and eye (ops).  It does have large eyes, and so looks rather startled, as if it had just learned that we’re calling it “Boops boops”.  It could be worse.  Puffinus puffinus is condemned to go through life both confused by and resentful of the fact it isn’t actually a puffin.  (It’s the Manx shearwater, and thanks to Alex Bond for its mention here.)



4 thoughts on “Wonderful Latin Names: Salacca zalacca 

  1. Tony Diamond

    Is it worth suggesting we talk about Scientific Names, not Latin names? Perhaps this rock is too far downhill to be worth trying to push back up, but as this post acknowledges “Latin” names are mostly Latinized or based on Greek (Greekized? Graecified?) and their identifying characteristic is that they are used in science, not the language they are based on. I have ranted to students about this – often stimulated by somebody (usually American) using the term “Genus-species” instead – so now I’m ranting to colleagues. Perhaps you’ve settled this debate here before; if not, I wonder how many others wince at the term “Latin name”?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yeah, I’ve been around this bush a few times. You are correct that Latin names are not necessarily based on Latin roots (see https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/latin-names-that-arent-latin/). It is also true that butterflies are not made of butter! They are Latinized, though. I believe the term “Latin name” is more familiar, and it’s shorter and less clunky, than “scientific name”, although either is an acceptable term. I explain my reasoning for using “Latin” names here: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/1782/. Cheers!



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