“Latin” names that aren’t Latin

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

(This is a lightly edited version of a post that originally ran in March 2015. But you probably didn’t see it then.)

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you’ll know that I have something of an obsession with Latin names.  Or, I should say, “Latin” names.  As my pedantic friend Alex has pointed out to me repeatedly and correctly, what I’ve been calling “Latin names” all my life (for instance, here, here, and here) are not always Latin at all. As Alex points out, “scientific names” is a more accurate term (although I still use “Latin name” here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; here’s why).

While a large fraction of Latin names have Latin derivations, there are examples of names based on words from many, many languages (although  their form is generally Latinized.)  Greek is, unsurprisingly, the next most common; but there are many less obvious ones. So I thought it would be fun to dig up some good examples, and I present them here 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), original March 23 2015; this revision August 30, 2018


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

  1. amlees

    I used to be able to hit ‘like’ to like your posts, but now I can’t. So I’m writing this very longwinded comment just to say that I like your post.


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