It's all Greek (and Latin) to me!

Since it is Friday, we thought we would have a little bit of a ‘lighthearted blog’ just to test the memory of all the PCA surveyors out there, complements of PCA trainer & honorary member Gervais Sawyer.

For many, sometimes the use of Latin names can get people’s head in a spin! You just have look at one of the recent webinars that got PCA’s Andy Ferguson’s head in a spin (sorry Andy…but we ‘just had to’ mention it)!

But…how well do both our surveyors in training and our qualified PCA surveyors know their latin? PCA trainer Gervais Sawyer takes us on a little Latin journey and poses the question…is it just ‘all Greek’ to you? Keep reading to find out what Gervais has to say…

How the heck do Footie Enthusiasts remember those names?

I confess to only having a passing interest in football, but I am often amazed at how footie enthusiasts can remember all those difficult names! Odemwingie, Kuyt, Malouda, Berbatov, Drogba, Vidic etc etc. And yet, so many PCA member surveyors say that they cannot remember or handle Latin names for insects and fungi. How is it our brain can absorb all these footie names but struggle to remember Latin based names for the jobs we do?!?

I suppose I do have an unfair advantage having been forced to study Latin & ancient Greek for 10 years. However, off the back of recent PCA news broadcasts, it caught my attention that the news items seemed to contain many examples of words borrowed directly from Latin and Greek.

A trip down ‘Latin (or is it Greek) lane’

Perhaps with a smattering of Latin the names of insects and fungi will be easier to remember. Biologically things are named with a two part name. The system can be credited to Carl Linnaeus. Since most of the world was Christian and the church used Latin (until us Brits had the audacity to translate things into English), Latin was the way to go as a common language. This binomial system uses two parts. The first part is usually just a name, occasionally modestly named after the person describing it. The second word contains the really useful part. For example:

  • Serpula lacrymans (lacryma – tears i.e. weeping)
  • Coniophora puteana (puteana – belonging to a well – sort of cellarish I suppose)
  • Donkioporea expansa (expansa – no prizes – spreading out)
  • Phellinus contiguus (contiguus – adjacent to)
  • Pleurotus ostreatus (covered in oyster shells)
  • Pyonema domesticus (of the house)
  • Poria placenta (flat cake)
  • Aureobasidium pullulans (aureo – golden pullulans- sprouting)
  • Anobium punctatum (punctured)
  • Lyctus brunneus (no prizes for this one – brown!)
  • Hylotrupes bajulus (carrier of a burden – I suppose that walking around with hose long antennae would be classed as a burden)
  • Euophryum confine (neighbourhood – i.e. your local weevil)
  • Tenebrio mollitor (mollitor – domesticated)
  • Ptilinus pecticornis (fan like horns )
  • Xestobium rufovillosum (red hairy)

Sometimes even my head is in a spin!

Now…I am not going to pretend and say that I am perfect and I get it right everytime (well…we can’t all be perfect after all). Occasionally, even I am baffled from time to time with such words as ‘Ernobius mollis‘ (just in case you are wondering, ‘mollis‘ means ‘eunuch’…I know…confused.com.)

The Latin fun does not stop there though. So many familiar English words have latin origins. For example:

  • albus – white. Hence Albus Dumbledore
  • coccineus – red. Hence cochineal food colouring
  • dentatus – toothed. Ask your dentist
  • oligo – few. Putin is an oligarch.
  • hetero and homo – different and same
  • pent – five, as in pentangle
  • lati – broad. Hence latitude
  • pseudo – false
  • ptero – winged. Hence Pterodactyl
  • mollis – soft. Hence mollify

But why do we use Latin?

But what is the point of all this? Why is it that this blog is beginning to turn out to be a Latin/Greek dictionary? Well, just be thankful that the scientific world shares understandable languages. If every country named things their own way, just imagine the confusion! American English is bad enough. Remember that English is almost not a language but rather an assembly of words that we have borrowed from other languages. Next time that you put on your pyjamas in your wee bungalow you will feel the zeitgeist vis-a-vis the lingo.

Why not give it a ‘Latin Bash’

Call up a Latin dictionary when you need to describe something. Invent a word and then look in the Oxford dictionary and you will find that it probably exists. Of course, you don’t have to use Latin. You can always modestly name something after yourself!

Gervasius albovillosum var.Sawyerii (Gervais Sawyer)

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