Event date: 23rd January 2017

Write-up by Pam Ratcliffe

It was all very different from my school Latin lessons: an enthusiastic speaker, an audience eager to learn, and much laughter.

Chris Metherell, a member of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, has to use botanical Latin because as Recorder he’s responsible for maintaining accurate botanical records for Northumberland northof the River Coquet.

Chris explained why we use Latin names for plants, and how botanical Latin works. (He couldn’t help us with pronunciation, because no one knows how the Romans spoke.)

In the western world, Greek was the lingua franca of all learning, with Aristotle starting science as we know it. The Romans based their learning on that of the Greeks, but as they used Latin for government throughout the empire, they also used Latin for the arts and science; of particular interest to us, Discoriodes listed medicinal plants in his Materia Medica.

Moving on around 1500 years and the rediscovery of classical texts and ideas known as the Renaissance, Latin was the language of learning in all disciplines and all parts of Europe, including Galileo in Italy and Newton in England.

Botanist, physician, and zoologist, Swedish Carl Linnaeus is known as the father of modern taxonomy. He used the language of learning – Latin – when developing the binomial system of namimg plants which is used worldwide today.

The names of plants had been descriptive, but become long and complicated: we can remember and make sense of bellis perennis = beautiful perennial, but bellis minor sylvestris spontanea = beautiful smaller woodland pops up all over the place is rather unwieldy! In 1753, in Species Plant arum, Linnaeus brought order and simplicity: every plant was to have only two parts to its name, first its genus, then its species. And each type of plant was to have a unique name.

Each type of plant has a ‘type specimen’, the definition of the organism, in a museum or library.

The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is agreed by botanical congresses which define the rules: names may not be repeated; all names are treated as if they are Latin; and plants may not be named after oneself. Anyone can name a plant, and if the name is published in a respected scientific paper it will generally be adopted – there’s no authoritative committee to approve or disallow a name. Names are changed to conform to the rules, and respected organisations and publications will adopt the new name and it comes into general use.

The structure and rules of Zoological nomenclature are similar, but permit repetition; for example, our Eurasian wren is Troglodytes troglodytes. Zoologists seem to have fun, naming beetles after famous people: spielbergii, borisbeckerii, bushii, cheynii & rumsveltii. In a few years such names will be harder to understand than the more sober, descriptive names of plants.

Editor’s note: A couple of our members, Carolyn Torr and David Goodchild, discovered more hilarious names after the talk. Carolyn spotted an article about a moth named Donald Trump (Neopalpa donaldtrumpi – a native of Mexico!) and David thought members would like to see some more corkers

David particularly liked Ba humbugi, Pieza kake and Verae peculya.