List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names

From Academic Kids

This list of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names is intended to help those unfamiliar with classical languages understand and remember the scientific names of organisms.

The binomial nomenclature used for animals and plants is largely derived from Latin, as are the names used for higher taxa such as families and orders. At the time when Linnaeus devised the hierarchical scientific classification of living things, Latin was used in Western Europe as the language of science, so it was natural that he should use the Latin name of each animal as its definitive scientific name. Although Latin is now largely unused except by classicists and for certain purposes by botanists and the Roman Catholic Church, the use of Latin names remains. It is helpful to most people to be able to understand the common words that arise from scientific names, and the table lists some of these; while the Latin names do not always correspond to the current English common names, they are often related, and if their meanings are understood they are easier to recall.

The benefit of having a scientific language is that it avoids subjectivity and political argument, while promoting an honest description of the subject or object of investigation.

The list includes a collection of scientific words and common prefixes used in English. Words that are very similar to their English forms are not included.

Often a genus or specific name is simply the Latin or Greek name for the animal (e.g. Canis is Latin for a dog). These words are not included in the table below, because they will only occur for one or two taxa. The words listed below are the common adjectives and other modifiers that repeatedly occur in the systematic names of many organisms.

Not all the words or parts of words used in scientific names for living things are derived from Latin. Some are derived from Greek, some from languages local to the places where the organisms are found, and many from the names of the people who first described a species or other taxon. However all are treated grammatically as if they were Latin words. In particular this means that to indicate possession, the endings -a and -us turn into -ae and -i respectively, and non-Latin names of people add -i if male and -ae if female. So "Humboldt's penguin" has the binomial name Spheniscus humboldti. Note too, from this example, that despite the fact that Humboldt is a proper name, the rule that species names do not have a capital letter takes precedence. Greek unlike Latin is a living language; however scientific nomenclature generally uses latinised spelling and Ancient Greek rather than Modern Greek vocabulary. While Latin is mostly found in use with biological studies, the remaining sciences and arts depend on an almost exclusive Greek lexicon. Medicine for example has some 80% Greek nomenclature although when we include the biological studies the rate drops to 65%, Chemistry 70% and Physics, Math, and Microbiology are based on Greek Nomenclature.

The list includes personal names only where their Latin form is markedly different from their English or other original language form, so that it might be difficult to guess the relationship. Words that are very similar to their English forms are not included.

Note that not all the attributions to languages in this table are authoritative.

See also

List of words

word or part word
LG=similar in
both languages
English translation
albus L white
arcturus L northern
argentatus L silvery
australis L southern
bengalensis L Bengal, India
borealis L northern
brachy G short
brevi short
carbo L coal
cauda tail
caulos G stem, stalk
caudatus L tailed
cephalus G head
chilensis L Chilean
chloro G green
-cola L -dweller
cristatus L crested
cyano G blue-green
dactylus G finger or toe
deca G ten
dermis G skin
di- G two-
diplo- G double
dodeca G twelve
dolicho- G elongated
domesticus L domestic or house
dorsalis L back
dukhunensis L Deccan plateau, India
echinus G spine
ennea G nine
ennea G ninety
erythro G red
etos G sea
familiaris L common
flora L flower
folius L leaf
fuscus L dark brown
fulvus L yellow
gaster G belly
glycis G sweet
halo G salt
hecta G hundred
hendeca G eleven
hepta G seven
heptacota G seventy
hexa G six
hexacota G sixty
hibernicus L Irish
hortensis L garden
icosa G twenty
indicus L Indian
lateralis L side
leucus G white
lineatus L lined or striped
ludovicani L Lewis's
maculatus L spotted
major L greater
maximus L largest
melanus G black
minimus L smallest
minor L smaller
mono- G one-
montanus L mountains
morphos G shape
morph- G shape
mauro- G dark
niger L black
nona L nine
nothos G false, bastard
notos G southern
novaehollandiae L Australian
novaeselandiae L New Zealand
noveboracensis L New York
obscurus L dark
occidentalis L western
octa G eight
octaconta G eighty
oeos- G tubular
officinalis L medicinal
orientalis L eastern
ortho- G straight
pachys G thick, stout
parvus L small
pedi- L feet
pelagius G oceanic
penta- G five-
pentaconta G fifty
petra G rocky, stony
phyllo G leaf
phyton G plant
platy G flat
protos G first
pteron G wing
punctatus L spotted
rhiza G root
rhytis G wrinkled
rubra L red
-rostra- L beak
rufus L red
sativus L sown, cultivated
saurus G lizard
sinensis L Chinese
stoma G mouth, opening
striatus L striped
sylvi L forest, wild
tetra- G four-
tetraconta G forty
tinctorius L dyeing
tomentosus L furry
tri- LG three-
trich-, thrix G hair
triconta G thirty
-ura G of the tail
uni L one
variabilis L variable
variegatus L variegated
ventrus L belly
verrucosus L rough skinned
viridis L green
volans L flying
vulgaris L common

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