Monday, August 26, 2013

Decoding botany

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, botany, nomenclature, dictionaries

Do you think you want to be a botanist? The prime asset to beginning a botanical career is a classical education. That's right, the Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy). And Grammar, including both Latin and Greek vocabulary, was traditionally taught in Latin; "grammar" is the study of the Latin rules of sentence construction. In fact, prior to the mid-19th Century, all seven subjects were taught in Latin. This would not be a bad idea today, particularly for anyone entering a biological science.

For those of us who prefer a more glancing acquaintance with formal botany, at least a course or two in Latin and Greek vocabulary would be a big help. Then, if you want just a smattering of "latinate" word knowledge, you would do well to read through Latin for Gardeners: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored by Lorraine Harrison. The core of the book is a dictionary listing of the 3,000 or so terms with very brief meanings. For example, a few items from the "F" pages:

fenestralis fen-ESS-tra-lis
fenestralis, fenestrale
With openings like a window, as in Vriesia fenestralis

fibrillosus fy-BRIL-oh-sus
fibrillosa, fibrillosum
fibrosus fy-BROH-sus
fibrosa, fibrosum
Fibrous, as in Dicksonia fibrosa

Certain prefixes are also shown, including

Used in compound words to denote many

Used in compound words to denote many

I picked a pair that includes one from Latin and one from Greek; both are used. It would have helped just a bit more if the author noted that multi- is from Latin and poly- is from Greek. A simple L and G in the listing would do. 3,000 of those would not take up much extra space. A regular rule, not always followed, is to use a Latin prefix with a Latin determiner and so with Greek. An example that keeps the rule is polycarpus; -carpus is from Greek for a fruit or seed pod, but originally meant "wrist". Your carpal bones reside in your wrists and the back of your hands. A plant named polycarpus has many fruits.

If this were only a dictionary it would be pretty dry fare. But the author has included biographical notes on 15 "plant hunters" (AKA explorers) and 20 plant genera such as Helianthus and Quercus (sunflower and oak). There is also a small "Latin in Action" blurb every 3-4 pages, and short essays on "plant themes" that include groups of words related to, for example, color or fragrance. I would like to have seen a section just on the prefixes and suffixes, perhaps even a matrix or table showing the many suffixes that go with each prefix, by means of a check mark or block. A big lack is explanation of Genera. Only 20 are described, and Delphinium, for example, is not one of them. How to know the word is derived from "Dolphin"?

All that aside, it is a good book to keep handy for looking up the meaning of a species name. Quercus rubra? Aha! Red oak! If you want to dig deeper into Biological Latin (quite distinct from Classical Latin or the Church Latin all Roman Catholics had to learn until about 1975), a good place to start is this BayGardens article, and the links it contains.

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