Saturday, June 03, 2006

Latin Lessons: Classics in our Backyards

Once it was important, if one was to be considered truly educated, to study Latin, Greek, and other classical languages. Now that those days are long past, it’s good to know these “dead” languages still come alive in our backyards, meadows, and woodlands where they remain fresh and accessible to us through the living creatures that share our world.

Linnaeus established our present system of scientific nomenclature in the 1700s, and was the person who endowed all the plants and animals then known with their original names. There are two parts to a scientific name. The genus name, always capitalized, is followed by the species name, as in Homo sapiens, the name that designates all humans. Every living or extinct organism known is given a scientific name, and some become quite familiar, as have Philodendron, Geranium, Stegosaurus, Salmonella, and Giardia.

Most people seem wary, even phobic (from Greek, fear), of classical words when they’re applied to plants and animals. Yet we use these word roots constantly in our everyday lives, where most of us can distinguish our ophthalmologist (from Greek ophthalm, eye, and logos, study of) from our chiropractor (from Greek chiro-, hand, and Latin pract-, work) and can pronounce them both just fine. A simple shopping trip in your automobile (Greek auto-, self, with Latin mobil, movable) might include the local delicatessen (Latin, deli- pleasant, alluring), a stop to pick up cosmetics (Greek, cosmet-, well adorned) or medicine (Latin, medi-, heal), or a visit to the movie theater (do I need to do Arachnophobia?). There’s nothing (except spiders) to fear in these words.

We’ve spoken before of the men who are honored in the names of our familiar plants and animals. When an English, German, or Japanese surname is converted to Latin by the addition of a few vowels (each of which often becomes a whole syllable), the results range from tongue-twisting at best to downright unpronounceable. Yet many of the world’s critters will forever be burdened with awkward Latinized names honoring botanists, expedition leaders, patrons of science, or other celebrities of the day in which they made their first appearance in the world’s scientific publications. These Latinized twists fortunately render into English via easy possessives: Nuttall’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii), Abert’s Squirrel (Sciurus abertii), Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii), Gambel’s Oak (Quercus gambelii), Frémont’s Cottonwood (Populus frémontii), and Parry’s Primrose (Primula parryi) are good examples.

Very few women were admitted to this exclusive old boy’s club. Alice Eastwood (1854-1953), author of Colorado’s first flora, whose dedication to plants earned her a permanent place in botanical history, is commemorated in our rarest monkey-flower (Mimulus eastwoodiae). Although her long and illustrious career provides justification enough, she is also remembered for saving California’s important botanical specimens from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

If few real women are so honored, whence come all those seemingly female plants we keep hearing about: Lady’s Mantle, Lady’s Slipper, our own rare Ladies’ Tresses. One story is that many of these honor a Lady of considerable renown in the Christian world, the virgin Mary. After all, most of the scientists who named the world’s creatures for us were working in a predominantly Christian culture. But remember, they were also scholars immersed in a sophisticated intellectual community whose members would have considered classical references the stuff of everyday life and language. They had probably read Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek.

Looking a little closer then, we learn that the Lady’s Slipper, our large woodland orchid, belonged to an older Lady still. The Latin name, Cypripedium, reveals its two roots. Cypri-, the Cypriot, refers here not just to any resident of Cyprus, but apparently to the famous lady who came ashore in a clam shell, none other than the lovely goddess Venus. Pedi- is a little more convoluted, but in this context must derive from the Latin root for “foot” (familiar to us in the word pedal), rather than the Greek roots for child (from which we derive pediatrics) and education (whence pedantic).

Our smaller woodland orchid, the fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa), belongs to another lady of Greek myth. Calypso was the sea nymph who lured Odysseus from his quest to spend seven years with her on her island, much as these delicate flowers now lure passersby to linger awhile in the dappled shadows where they are found by the lucky or observant.

Few schools today offer Greek or Latin; fewer still require them. Thanks to conventions established by Linnaeus, however, every student of life sciences must become conversant with these languages, even if she must learn them in a somewhat backward fashion. Gradually, through constant exposure, they begin to seep in and even to make sense. Each of these names has a story to tell, and, taken piece by piece, they’re really not so hard. A little knowledge may be dangerous, but in the end learning a few Latin and Greek roots saves a lot of time spent in the dictionary—and makes it far easier to understand what your doctor is telling you!

Copyright, S.L. White, 2006. Illustration copyright Jan Ratcliffe.
Originally published in Upbeat, November 1996.


Crafty Green Poet said...

That's a really interesting post. I love trying to find out the stories beind scientific names. Some of them are even amusing.

S.L. White said...

Thanks, J. My favorite is a lichen species, named for "favorite field assistant"... X. josecuervoi (or something)... after the tequila.