“Let’s talk about pronunciation of scientific names”

At this past spring’s Missouri Native Plant Society Spring Field Trip, I was asked if I would be interested in writing an article for an upcoming issue of the Society’s newsletter, Petal Pusher. The planned theme for the issue was Latin and scientific nomenclature, though I was free to choose the precise subject. Being much more of an entomologist than I am a botanist, I was honored, and being a bit of a pedant, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about—the title of this post serving as an obvious clue.

Now, I don’t claim to have any special expertise in pronunciation of latinized nomenclature—in fact, I’ve never taken a single course in Latin. Nevertheless, I’ve probably studied and mulled over the subject a bit more than most, and age likely has also given me a bit of perspective on balancing adherence to “rules” (to the extent that they exist) and ease of use.

In that spirit, I offer the following article, which was just published in the newly-released July–August issue. It’s a light-hearted and (hopefully) fun read intended to provide readers with tips for making pronunciation of scientific names a little bit easier and a lot less intimidating. I’ll let you be the judge on whether I accomplished that goal.

p.s. The subtitle of the article is a nod to James Trager, who contributed another article in the issue dealing with the origin and use of Latin in botanical nomenclature… while explicitly side-stepping the question of pronunciation!

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

4 thoughts on ““Let’s talk about pronunciation of scientific names”

  1. I was smiling very quickly as I read your post. Already in your second sentence we have “nomenclature”. No MEN clature? Or nomen CLA ture? 😏 Which side of the pond are we on?

    It also brought to mind my latest bugaboo: the covid variant, omicron. I thought it was my science inculcation the caused me to say oMYcron, not OHmacron. You’re a product of the sciences – which way do you say it?

    I just love your narratives about the plants and insects you find on your travels. Keep ‘em coming. Thanks for sharing. – Peggy

  2. Cute article. One point to consider is how much Latin has changed for our usage. All available evidence shows that in Latin the letter “c” was always a hard consonant (like “k”), never soft. Thus, “science” should probably be pronounced “skienke”, and “cephalon” should be “skephalon”. Language and its evolution can be fun to follow.

  3. Well done Ted.

    As a botanist, the current debate on the use and pronunciation of scientific names drives me insane! I find the variation in common names totally frustrating. Let’s not even start to discuss the format of scientific names………


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