Fun with Botanical Latin
A few weeks ago I received a gift of garden books, including an unassuming but incredibly useful pamphlet for the Latin-impaired. Entitled New Pronouncing Dictionary of Plant Names, it's an A to Z guide to plant names and botanical terms, with definitions. Many people would have immediately tucked this item away on a shelf for future reference. I, on the other hand, read it - not cover to cover, perhaps, but large chunks of it. I like words.
This little book is full of surprises - who knew the letter E could be so interesting? In all my years of perusing garden catalogues, I had never given any thought to the connection between Echinacea (coneflower) and Echinops (globe thistle). Then I read that Echinatus means "prickly" or "bristly" and it hit me: both plants have rather obvious bristly features (the coneflower's center and the globe thistle's leaves).
But wait, there's more. It turns out that echinus means sea urchin in Greek. I discovered that on Botanary, the next stop after my curiosity outran the 62 pages of my pronouncing dictionary.
Right about now you are probably thinking, "It's January and this cooped up gardener is losing her mind." Not at all. I am just very left-brain. It's inherited.
My father loved words. His idea of a fun read was the Oxford English Dictionary, though he also enjoyed dictionaries in Greek, Latin, and a bunch of other languages dead and alive. If we asked him what a word meant, he would invariably respond, "Look it up" - that's what all those dictionaries were for, right? But he couldn't resist throwing in the etymology, whether we asked for it or not; you would be astonished at how frequently the term "cognate" cropped up during my childhood.
Although he had no interest in gardening (or nature, or actually being outside), he probably could have told you more than you wanted to know about the botanical names of every plant in my mother's garden, had he ever been inclined to flip through one of her catalogues. He had read pretty much everything that had ever been written about anything, and remembered it well enough to explain it, even decades later. We found it very annoying.
That was then, this is now. What was eye-roll-inducing at 15 is simply fascinating in my 50s, when I suddenly feel an urge to learn Greek and Latin cognates. It is too late to learn from my father - isn't bad timing at the root of most of life's little ironies? - so I will have to do it on my own. Or, as my father liked to say, "Look it up."
1/4/2013 09:44:12 am
Thank you so much. You're in luck - it's winter and there isn't much to say about the garden.
1/6/2013 02:10:41 am
Yes, it turns out that Latin is yet another thing that gardeners need to know, along with biology and chemistry.
1/5/2013 01:00:59 am
Sounds like a great book for a gardener. I have begun to think I need to learn latin - just so I'll know more about plants! Such interesting information about the echinacea. Thanks, too, for the link to Botany. I go often to DavesGarden website, but didn't know about this. Now I have a new toy to play with! :)
1/6/2013 02:11:45 am
I just discovered Botanary and love it! It's amazing what is out there on the internet.
1/5/2013 02:06:13 pm
My father had a lot in common with your father. He used to say "L.I.U." That was short for "Look it up." I am interested in how Latin words are pronounced by botanists, as opposed to Latin teachers teaching classical Latin. Is there a system?
1/6/2013 02:15:15 am
I'm not sure there is a system - even in "official" botanical Latin guides, I've seen variations in pronunciation. Itea (Virginia sweetspire), for instance - I've been say Eye-tee-a, accent on first syllable. My new guide says "It-ee-a", accent on the ee. Maybe their system is "make it up as you go along."
I know that church Latin (from the little I've heard) is pronounced differently from the classical Latin I learned in high school, and current Greek is pronounced differently from classical Greek (as far as they can reconstruct it), so maybe botanists are left to their own devices as to which pronunciation(s) to follow.
1/5/2013 11:06:06 pm
What's weird is how things that seemed completely uninteresting when you were younger seem incredibly interesting now--I have found that again and again history, an area I all-but-completely avoided in college. I'm not sure botanical Latin would really grab me, but I think etymologies are very interesting (and cognates, too!).
1/6/2013 02:16:11 am
"Youth is wasted on the young."
I am not sure it is too late to learn from your father's example. You seem to be doing just that! It is interesting that the Greek word "echinus" suggests a link between a sea urchin and a flower. Everything in nature is connected in some way. That language can remind us of that underlying link speaks to the power of words.
1/10/2013 01:25:37 am
Thanks, Jennifer. I hope it's not too late... It is amazing how words get you thinking about the relationship between seemingly unrelated things (like a spiny, prickly sea urchin and the spiny, prickly center of a coneflower).
1/10/2013 02:27:29 am
Jennifer, I agree. Rhymes and puns and figures of speech are so appealing in part because they suggest for us all sorts of connections we would never otherwise think about.
1/13/2013 12:33:41 pm
I am a self-confessed word nerd, so I love this stuff; I'm going to add this book to my wish list. Are you familiar with dictionary.com's word of the day (to which I was introduced by Chad at Nitty Gritty Dirt Man)? If you subscribe, you get an email each day with the "word of the day," including it's origins. I'm always explaining word origins to my students, who usually give me the eye roll in response. :-)
1/13/2013 11:40:30 pm
Thanks, Jean. Yes, I'm aware of Dictionary.com and have been a subscriber, too. I love seeing the new words, although I often forget the definition by the next day!
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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