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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Taxus* and taxonomy.

O tempora o mores?

The International Botanical Congress noticed a little while ago that Latin isn't the most widely-understood language in the world, and so from 2012 it has been acceptable for the scientific names of plants to be written in English as an alternative to the previously obligatory Latin.

This might seem a shame - those Latin names were so...exotic...but the Latin requirement was never merely a matter of bunging a label on a new weed. A new scientific name for a plant before 2012 had to have the proper Latin grammatical components linking the words. And that wasn't all: when, for example, the botanist Jim Miller discovered a new tree Cordia koemarae in Suriname, the description of it entered in the official International List had to be in Latin (of a kind) too:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis, 7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.
There are still thousands of species of plants waiting to be named so they can be studied, used, admired and protected, and  botanists plead that they have more urgent things to do than compose passages in Latin.

Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London, says: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

Latin is a glorious language, and it would be a tragedy if it were entirely lost; but for the poor botanists, it's hard to think they've made the wrong decision.

Word To Use Today: taxonomy. This word comes from the French taxonomie, from the Greek taxis, which means order.

*Taxus is the scientific name for the genus of plants containing yew trees.

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