Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names
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.
List of words
word or part word
|dactylus||G||finger or toe|
|domesticus||L||domestic or house|
|dukhunensis||L||Deccan plateau, India|
|lineatus||L||lined or striped|
|-ura||G||of the tail|
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