naming of plants

Jim McKenney
Mon, 11 Jan 2016 14:36:16 PST
Long ago I was told that every botanical genus name has a corresponding vernacular form spelled the same way. Even non-gardeners are familiar with some examples: rhododendron, crocus and narcissus for instance. When taxonomy moves on, these vernacularized forms persist: gloxinia in the vernacular sense does not mean the same thing that Gloxinia (capital G, italics) means in formal botany; Narcissus jonquilla simplex, which persists in horticultural literature, does not exist in the contemporary formal botanical literature. 

When I’m talking to myself so-to-speak, because I’m speaking English, I pronounce these vernacularized forms as if they were English words: hydrangea for instance drops a syllable and becomes high-‘dran-ja. When I’m talking to myself and encounter a genus name from the formal botanical literature (capital initial letter, italicized), I pronounce it as if it were textbook Latin; hydrangea, for instance, becomes he-dran-‘gay-a.  I’ve become adept at switching back and forth between the two systems of pronunciation.  Were I speaking out loud, a sentence such as “Irises (‘Eye-ris-ez) are among my favorite plants, and among the many species I particularly like [capital I, italics] Iris reticulata (‘EE-ris re-ti-cu-‘la’ta), aka [capital I, italics} Iridodictyium reticulatum (Ee-ree-do-‘dik-tee-um re-ti-cu-‘la-tum)”.  This sort of thing no doubt annoys the English über Alles crowd; one keen chauvinist, on hearing me do this, called it – loud enough for everyone in the room to hear- pretentious. 

I was reminded of all of this by Bob’s statement that genus names are singular.  Even a century ago, this statement, usually without explanation, occurs in botany books and no doubt is much older than that.  As I understand it, the only persons to whom this information could be of any particular interest or importance are taxonomists setting out to write a diagnosis in Latin. To them, it’s very important to treat the genus name as a singular noun. Why? Because in the Latin diagnosis, given the highly inflected nature of Latin, the spelling of the genus name (and the associated species name/names ) will change according to its grammatical function in a sentence. Knowing that the genus name is singular, the taxonomist will use the singular case endings and not the plural case endings.  Here are some examples from Stearn’sBotanical Latin (chapter 43, which gives several Latin diagnoses with English translations):

In the Latin text: “inter species subgeneris Pachystigmatis…” which is translated “among the species of the subgenus Pachystigma – note the extra syllable in the Latin version (see below, next paragraph)

Latin “species haec ab Helotio citrino differ…”, translation  “this species differs from Helotium citrinum…” 

As both of these examples show, the spelling of the generic name changes to comply with the inflected nature of Latin. If the sense requires it, grammar provides a plural form. But English is not inflected in that way, and in translation only the nominative singular form is used.

And one of the reasons the spelling of the genus name will change, sometimes to the point of adding a syllable – is that the case endings are not added to the nominative stem but to the genitive stem. The only time most of us ever encounter this practice is when a family name is formed using a genus whose genitive stem does not agree with its nominative stem: the genus Melastoma (genitive stem melastomat- ) is the basis for the family name Melastomataceae. If one were to separate the members of the genus Nomocharis (genitive stem nomocharit- ) into a family of their own, it would be named Nomocharitaceae.  

So what’s all this about? When you’re writing in English, do you use datum or data when a singular sense is required? Do you use “bacteria” in both a singular and plural sense? When you go into a sandwich shop to order one sandwich, do you ask for a panini or a panino? Did you ever want to hit Liberace over the head with a candelabrum or with candelabra? 

If botanical genus names are singular (as Latin words), does better or more informed  usage require that we use them only in the singular sense in English? Or should the plural form be used?  I emphatically say “NO”. Treat them as collective nouns, and have the verbs agree as the sense demands.  In speech this is not an issue: we don’t speak capitals and italics. But in print, if a botanical name is italicized and has a capital initial letter, are you always going to treat it as a singular noun? I hope not: remember, this is English, not Latin. Put The Blue Pencil away. 

Jim McKenney

Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7

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