Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Naming Life in Greek and Latin

If you've ever studied any of the sciences, you've likely noticed that most words in science are of Greek or Latin origin. This is especially true in biology, where a system exists for naming things in Latin.

Most sciences have borrowed their names from either Greek or Latin and biology is no exception. The word βιος (bios) in Ancient Greek means "life" and λογος (logos) means "the study of", which gives us "the study of life". Even the word etymology came from the Ancient Greek ἐτυμολογία (etumologia).

As you probably know, there are billions of living things on this planet, though not so many on the other planets in our Solar System. When it comes to naming them, numbers, as most linguists will agree, are too boring. So what can you do? Create a system.

What an impressive pinus erectus...
Actual name Pinus ponderosa.
Binomial Nomenclature

Binomial nomenclature, the convention used to name pretty much every living thing using only two words, is not only common in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons but in real life too. Before binomial nomenclature, species were named using polynomial nomenclature, which used many words for naming things. It was useful for descriptions but not great at getting a point across quickly. The binomial system was simpler and gave things a unique identifier instead of giving too much information about them.

There were so many wonderful benefits to only using two words. Firstly, it's cheaper to print the names (if you're on a budget) and it also makes everything a lot easier to remember. It also helps maintain a standard across the world. It would be great if everyone could speak every language, but this isn't the case and scientists know it.

Though Latin and Classical Greek are the preferred languages when it comes to naming animals, there are a few exceptions. Big-headed scientists occasionally break the rules and name something after themselves or even put jokes in them, though don't expect them to be side-splittingly funny, they are biologists after all! Needless to say, Rubus cockburnianus is a strong contender for our favourite.