Why Use Latin Names?

by G.F. Guala

Latin isn't difficult, it is just different. Why use Latin names? The short answer is twofold. The most important reason is that there is only one corrrect Latin name for any plant species. It is the rule (see for yourself here). There can be hundreds of common names for the same plant, or conversely, the same common name can be used for hundreds of different species. If you learn a Latin name and you see that plant again anywhere in the world, you will still know its name. If you learn a common name and you see the plant again somewhere else, even in your neighbors yard, you still only know what you call it, not what its name is. Often you and your neighbor will call it the same thing and be able to communicate about it, but I garauntee that someone in another country, or often even in another part of your country will not call it the same thing, and you won't be able to communicate with each other about it.

The second reason is that Latin isn't spoken by anyone and thus, it doesn't change over time. Thus we can rely on a Latin name to mean exactly the same thing that it did 300 yrs ago.

Latin species names really aren't that difficult to learn. They all consist of two parts: the genus and the specific epithet (often called the species by those not in the know). The species is actually both words (plus an Authority - the name of the person who published it - if you want to be absolutely correct.) You can talk about a genus (which is a group of related species) because the genus term is a noun like "Oak" (or Quercus in Latin). You may know what an Oak is and you may know that there are different kinds of Oaks. The specific epithet is an adjective like "white" (or alba in Latin). It makes sense to say "white oak" but not "oak white" in english. In Latin (as in many other languages), adjectives follow nouns so in Latin you say "Quercus alba" instead of "Alba Quercus". You may also know that there is only one species called Quercus alba (that is why they put the Latin name in the bill when they designated it the state tree of Maryland), but you might not know that it is also known as Eastern White Oak, Stone oak or stave-oak and that the name "white oak" actually refers to several species of oak in English speaking countries.

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