Saturday, January 26, 2013

How's your Latin?

My mother became a sort of hermit in her old age, rattling around all alone in her house in West Hartford.  When she broke her hip at age 92, however,  she reluctantly agreed to hire some help.  The agency sent an attractive young girl whose name was Virus. If germs didn't immediately come to mind, wouldn't that name be as pretty as Vera or Violet?

Isn’t Vermin as appealing as Vernon, unless of course you automatically conjure up visions of rats and cockroaches?  Words like syphilis or rebella could make pretty names if you didn’t have previous notions of their meanings.  Why isn’t rancid as nice a name as David?  Is Claudia any prettier than phobia? The names for plants can cause these same sorts of problems.  Take the name streptocarpus.  You might think that attractive houseplant could give you strep throat if you weren’t familiar with the pottted plant
above, whose common name is Cape primrose.

 . Isn’t the name Doll’s Eyes, a baneberry's seeds pictured below,  a more fun name than Actaea Alba? I rarely use Latin names for the plants I write about.  To me a name like Prunella  vulgaris doesn’t bring to mind the little purple flower we know as selfheal, It sounds like it might be the name of one of Hank’s old girlfriends.  Of course it helps if you know that the Latin word vulgaris means common in English

When translated, all those Latin names help to identify plants, but another even more important reason to know them is because they are universal, unlike the common names which vary from place to place. 

You may call the wildflower above with a little yellow bloom and spotted leaves a dogtooth violet.  Other
folks call it the adder’s tongue.  I like to call it the trout lily because it is a lily, not a violet, and has those speckled leaves that look similar to a trout. We should all call it Erythronium americanum and there’d be no confusion at all.

What a mouthful! I much prefer the imaginative common names, but maybe I’d feel differently if I hadn’t had such a bad start with Latin. I spent my first two weeks at boarding school in the infirmary with bronchitis and when I finally got to my first Latin class I found I’d been placed in second year Latin my mistake. The teacher was convinced I was just panicked at missing the first weeks of class, and as a consequence I was four weeks behind when I got to the right class. By then I loathed Latin. 

The first botanical name I ever succeeded in remembering was Dentaria.  Its common name is toothwort and its white blooms resemble teeth.  There are two species of this wildflower, D. multifida  which translates as "many times parted," referring to the leaves,  and D. maxima which means "largest." It could really help to know Latin.

I've never managed to keep Chimaphila umbellata and Chimaphila maculata straight, two little evergreen wildflowers of the same genus. The common name for C. maculata is pipsissewa or spotted wintergreen, a summer blooming wildflower with a variegated leaf.  It turns out that maculata means spotted. C. umbellata has no white in its leaves.  It looks like a miniature pachysandra. Its flowers are umbels. I confess I had to look that word up – “a flat-topped flower cluster in which the individual flower stalks arise from aabout the same point.”  Chimaphila combines the Greek word cheima, meaning "winter," and the Latin word phila meaning “having a preference for growing.”

This column has suddenly turned into a lot of work.  I’m afraid I’m too old to start studying Latin. I’ll leave all those botanical names to the botanists, and spend my time enjoying the flowers, whatever their names.

    1 comment:

    1. my attempts at Latin names for flora usually involve an emphasis on the wrong syllables....will stick to familiar names and leave the Latin to the scholars...'hodea probationem parvam habebemus...claudete libros et perate scribere' .... well, that's what I remember from Latin 50 yrs ago, misspelled for sure, but it means to say 'today we'll have a little test, close your books and prepare to write'.... or NOT... stay warm