Contemporary Botanical Latin

During my engagement as a professional translator, I translated zoological and botanical texts from Latin to English and from English to Latin. I presented the following paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association in January 2005. It describes the status of botanical Latin up to that time as well as my own experience in this area. Since then, the botanical requirement for Latin descriptions has been dropped; but the Latin is still relevant for older descriptions.

In what has become the standard reference work on the subject, Botanical Latin, William T. Stearn explains how the new flora from the Americas, the discovery of plant sexuality, and the use of the microscope led botanists from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth century to develop a specialized idiom. This comprises not only the familiar genus and species names invented by Linnaeus, but also the Latin descriptions of plants which still represent their official descriptions today. Those early botanists knew Latin, but they excluded such models as Ciceronian style in favour of the scientific qualities of precision, clarity, and economy. Botanical Latin includes several conventions, such as fixed endings for names with different ranks in the classification of species (‘taxonomy’), and an abridged syntax combining nominatives for major organs with descriptive ablatives for secondary parts, with few verbs. But most importantly, it comprises an extensive descriptive terminology derived from Greek and Latin.
Unfortunately, in his zeal to assert the autonomy of botanical vis-√†-vis Classical Latin, Stearn wrote a stern warning about Classicists: "Professors of the Classics are particularly liable to err through ignorance of botanical tradition." (p. 156). He offers examples like the word gynoecium, used by botanists for the female parts of a flower, suggesting that a classicist would translate this as “the women’s apartment”, thus conjuring a plant worthy of Edward Lear’s humorous drawings.
Actually, Stearn himself is a sort of botanical classicist. Botanical Latin, he tells us, was fully developed and ready for standardization by the Nineteenth century. And the exemplary descriptions which he provides were written largely by nineteenth-century botanists schooled in Latin who composed those descriptions themselves. A random sampling of twentieth-century botanical journals reveals errors which are sometimes seriously detrimental to precision and clarity. We often encounter an imprecise or misleading expression even within a fairly sound description, as, for example, in this description of a Peruvian pepper plant published in the American Journal of Botany in 1952:
Yuncker, sp. nov. ( fig. 3)
Frutex; ramulis gracilibus crispe pubescentibus; foliis lanceolato-ellipticis, apice acuminatis. basi aequilateralibus, supra glabris subscabridis subtus crispe pubescentibus, a medio infero vel a tertio supero pinnatim venosis, nerviis utrinque 4 vel 5; bracteis triangulari-cucullatis glabris; ovario glabro; stigmatibus sessilibus.
"A shrub; twigs slender, crisp-pubescent; inter nodes 2.5-6 cm. long, lengthening downward; leaves lance-elliptic, acuminate at apex, inequilateral at base… the hairs erect, drying papery, translucent, minutely pellucid-dotted, pinnately nerved from the lower half or two-thirds, the nerves 4 or 5 on each side, with shorter intermediates and cross-connecting-anastomosing nervules; petiole 3-5 plus 1-2 mm. long, crisp-pubescent, vaginate at the base…"
Here the leaves (foliis) are said to have veins, or ‘nerves’, ‘a medio infero vel a tertio supero’... literally, 'from the middle lower or from the higher third'; but the detailed description in English tells us this means “from the lower half or two-thirds”.
And in some cases, the Latin simply breaks down, as in this excerpt from the Hokkaido Orchid Society Journal, posted on the Internet (n.b.: spelling errors are in the original).
Phragmipedium chapadense Campacci & Takase
Roberto Takase (**)
Latin Diagnosis: Species haec Phragmipedium hartwegii (Rchb. f.) Pfitzer similis, sed difert semper floribus minoribus qui ille alter. Herba acaule; foliis 6-8 contemporaneis, distichis, coriaceis, loriformibus. Scapo erecto, pubescente, bracteis lanceolatis; superioribus latioribus et majoribus quam ovarium. Sepala superiore ovato-lanceolata, acuminata, 5,0-5,5 cm longa et 1,5-1,8 cm lata. Sinsepala lato-ovata, 4,5-4,8 cm longa et 3,2-3,4 cm lata. Petalae linear-lanceolatae, acutae, undulatae, 9,0 cm longae et 0,7-0,8 cm latae in bases. Labello calceolate, 5,0-5,2 cm longum et 2,4-2,5 cm latum; sacco latior qui ostium. Stamine sterili sub-eliptico, in marginibus pubescente in superiore et posteriore latere.
"Terrestrial plant with short rhizome, whitish roots, glabrous, with about 3,0 mm in diameter. . . .
The lip is longer than the synsepal, measuring 5,0 - 5,2 cm long by 2,4 - 2,5 cm wide, sacate in general obovoid. The pouch is wider than the infolded side lobes, chestnut greenish in color. It bears two auricles in the margins of the aperture. The side lobes (óstio) are pale green spotted with small redish-brown dots, without other acessory spots. The joint of the side lobes is brigth green in color.
Elliptic staminode, measuring 0,6 cm long by 1,0 cm wide, brigth green with short thik redish hairs in all the uper side untill the collumn and the external border turned backside. The collumn is pubescent and has 0,4 - 0,5 cm long."
(Published in: "Supplement #1 of the "Journal of Hokkaido Orchid Society - Vol. 28 - 2000")
It begins, “This species is similar to Phagmipedium hartwegii, but differs by always having smaller flowers than that species”… We can guess that ‘qui’ ('who') should read ‘quam’ ('than'), because these descriptions often start by differentiating the new species from a related form in this way; but this is hardly precise and clear. The nominative and the ablative are used almost indiscriminately in the rest of the description; the “lip” (labello) is 5 cm “longum”, and “sacco latior qui ostium”. Does this mean the lip is wider than the pouch, taking sacco as an ablative of comparison? Or that the (ablative) pouch is wider (in the nominative) than something else? Without the English description one might never guess.
Regardless of botanists’ right to independent usage, texts like these demonstrate that Stearn’s admonition to botanists to avoid Latinists was not timely. Neither was his encouragement of an unfortunate tendency to reduce the use of the nominative and ablative to a mindlessly applied formula and exclude all finite verbs. This can make descriptions easier to write, but nearly impossible to read; imagine the nested ablatives for ‘lateral branches long and red with secondary twigs with long hairs with terminal prongs and short hairs with red to orange tips’. (In Latin, there is no word for 'with', it is only signaled by the ablative.)
But Stearn’s botanical classicism also meant less attention to positive developments under way in his own century, as I learned, e.g.,from a study of dinoflagellates.
Dinoflagellates are aquatic microbes. Their life cycle includes a motile stage equipped with two flagella—one imparts a forward motion, while the other causes the organism to whirl on its axis; hence the dinos ('whirl'). There is also a resting stage or cyst. Living dinoflagellates are usually encountered in the motile stage, whereas the cysts, preserved as fossils, are more familiar to paleontologists.
Just as in the past, economic and technical factors stimulated research on these organisms in the late twentieth century. The living forms interest marine biologists because they cause red tides. Cysts interest paleontologists because they are useful in determining the ages of rocks and the nature of ancient environments, especially in oil exploration. And knowledge of dinoflagellate morphology was greatly enhanced by the electron microscope.
That is important, because of the astonishing variety and complexity of these organisms. The body wall, called the ‘theca’, bears a characteristic arrangement of plates around two belts or grooves in which the flagella insert, known as the ‘cingulum’ and the ‘sulcus’, and around the ‘apex’ and ‘antapex’, the two ends of the organism. The pattern of plates, or “tabulation”, is the main feature identifying different motile dinoflagellates, and scientists have elaborated complex rival systems of terms and symbols to designate the plates, as well as a descriptive terminology of hundreds of newly defined terms like cingulum (lit. 'girdle'), sulcus (lit. 'groove') and theca ('shell').
Cysts form inside the theca. Sometimes the cyst is fixed in place inside the theca by processes attached to the theca. When the theca dissolves, the processes remain on the naked cyst. In the past, many fossil cysts could not always be linked with the corresponding motile form; but progress was made when it was discovered that these processes were each attached to one plate, so that they reflect the thecal tabulation.
The cysts too exhibit a variety of forms. An important feature identifying different cysts is the hole through which the next stage in the life cycle emerges. This hole always has a characteristic shape and location—and bears the grandiloquent name of ‘the archeopyle’ (lit. ‘fossil gate’). Its lid, incidentally, is the ‘operculum’ (lit. 'coverlet').
Now, this twentieth-century expansion of dinoflagellate studies proceeded along parallel lines in different disciplines. In addition to the division between paleontologists and neontologists, there was another: Dinoflagellates have different modes of feeding; some are predators; but more than half use photosynthesis. Therefore, some authors followed the rules of zoological nomenclature, while others followed the botanical rules. This is critical as regards Latin, because only the botanical code still requires that any new group be identified by a brief differential description, or ‘diagnosis’, in Latin.
As knowledge advanced and fossil cysts could be increasingly correlated with their living motile forms, eventually taxonomists had to attempt a unified classification of living and fossil dinoflagellates. A Canadian research group led by Robert Fensome did so in A Classification of living and fossil Dinoflagellates, published in 1993; and to comply with the botanical rules, they included diagnoses which I translated into Latin.
This diagnosis of the Suborder Ceratiineae exemplifies my procedure.
SUBORDER CERATIINEAE Fensome et al. subordo nov.
Diagnosis: Gonyaulacaleans having at least three horns, of which one or two are formed by contributions from postcingular plates, and in which the first antapical plate (Y) contacts six or seven adjacent plates including the distalmost postcingular.
Latin Diagnosis: Gonyaulacales corniculis minime tribus, quorum unum duove ex partibus tabularum postcingularium conficiuntur, atque tabula prima antapicali (Y) sex septemve tabulas confines contingenti, in quo numero tabula postcingularis distalissima habetur.
The original English has greater precision and clarity than some Latin descriptions which I have seen; yet even the very first word signals caution. ‘Gonyaulacaceans’ has a convenient anglicized ending (-an) which does not specifically identify the order of which this is a suborder; so I had to restore the ordinal ending. The three horns go readily into the descriptive ablative. If I wished, following the fashion, to avoid finite verbs altogether, I might have tried to change the relative clause deriving them from plates behind the cingulum (postcingulars) into another, awkward ablative phrase. But the relative clause is clearer. The first antapical plate reverts to the ablative, but once again, I did not hesitate to use a relative clause where it was clearer. The symbol Y is assigned to that plate in the system the author is using. It may be arbitrary or it may signal an English or even German word. In order not to interfere with its systematic meaning, I kept it as is. Finally, I used the circumlocution ‘in numero habetur’ for ‘including’ because in describing an organism, words like ‘includere’ might be taken to mean that the other plates surround the antapical or shut it in physically.
Here is the diagnosis of the Subfamily Helgolandinioideae, with the original English.
SUBFAMILY HELGOLANDINIOIDEAE Fensome et al subfamilia nov.
Text figures 109-111
Diagnosis: Goniodomaceans with either or both of the following characters: 1) the tabulation has more than the typical goniodominean number of plates in at least two plate series, 2) within the life-cycle there is a nonpreservable smooth cellulosic cyst with a chasmic archeopyle
Latin Diagnosis: Goniodomaceae characterum alterutrum vel utrumque habentes: vel seriebus minime duabus tabulas plures quam Goniodomineis solitum praebentibus, vel vitae cyclo cystam laevem cellulosam in statu fossili non conservatam efferenti, quae archeopylam chasmicam habet
Once again, I restored the appropriate endings for the family, and for the suborder. Now, I have never encountered the use of alphanumerical bullets in botanical Latin, and out of respect for the autonomy of the botanical idiom I did not wish to innovate. Conditions like having “one or both” of two characters are not uncommon in descriptions of higher taxonomic units like this, which comprise many species and genera; and the expressions I used are attested in Stearn. The characters go naturally into the descriptive ablative. The use of effero, also attested by Stearn, seemed suitable for a stage ‘brought forth’ by the life cycle.
Before I wrote these diagnoses, the author sent me a few pages of previous Latin descriptions of dinoflagellates. There were one or two errors, and some grammatically correct items with which I would not agree, as always happens among translators. Overall, however, the Latin seemed satisfactory.
It seems apparent that the scientists who created this terminology and published these diagnoses did not heed Stearn’s advice to avoid classicists, and that the classicists whom they consulted respected and studied the botanical idiom.
The Latin requirement, as you might have guessed, is controversial. The controversy should and will be resolved by the botanists; at a meeting in 2005 they decided to keep the requirement for now, but I suspect that will not be the end of the matter. Some critics of the requirement are Third World botanists, one of whom complains in an internet chat that Asians and Africans must seek the help of ‘some clergyman or taxonomist friend’ in a Western country. It is telling that he would turn to a clergyman rather than a classicist. But the most telling circumstance for me is the hundreds of technical terms still being created from Greek and Latin on subjects like the Dinoflagellates.
I wonder whether those who complain of the inconvenience of collaborating with a Latinist are aware of what may be lost. Anyone who has experienced the delight of undergraduates when the veil is lifted from their eyes by the opening lectures of a course in scientific terminology knows what I mean. The technical vocabulary of the life sciences is larger and plays a more important role in the understanding of these sciences than is the case, for example, in physics or computer science. And if the opaque acronyms of the latter discipline or the near baby-talk of the former (‘big bang’, ‘quarks’, etc.) should begin to proliferate in botany, it will not be convenient.


John D. Dodge, “Dinoflagellate Taxonomy” in: David L. Spector, Dinoflagellates (1984)
R.A. Fensome et al., A Classification of Living and Fossil Dinoflagellates, Micropaleontology Special Publication Number 7, Hanover Pennsylvania 1993
William T. Stearn, Botanical Latin, Devon 1978
Roberto Takase, Phragmipedium chapadense Campacci & Takase, Journal of Hokkaido Orchid Society vol. 28 (2000) Supplement no. 1
T.G. Yuncker, “New Species of Peruvian and Colombian Piperaceae”, American Journal of Botany vol. 39 (1952) 633 ff.
© James Jope 2006

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