In biology, we are well acquainted with evolution and ultimately the extinction of some species.
In a similar way, languages have also evolved and we witness divergent evolution due to geographical isolation. Portuguese and Spanish as spoken in South America now differ from that spoken in Portugal and Spain, respectively. American English has diverged from classical English, in spellings, ‘thru’ instead of ‘through’, and even in meaning; for us in the UK a subway is a tunnel by which we can cross under a road, in the USA it means an underground railway system. Many languages have become extinct and some nearly so, as with Latin.
Education has also evolved and at the time I went to school I had the choice to study Latin, now rarely offered as a subject. In some ways I felt I should have learned a more modern language, like Spanish. However, Latin, whether we continue to be aware of it or not, is the basis of many words in Romance languages. The same is true for English (perhaps up to 60%), which despite its West Germanic origin was impacted by the Roman occupation. A knowledge of Latin enables us to both understand the origins of some words in our own English language but also to recognise the origins of many words in other Latin-influenced languages. In English, for example, we continue to use the terms ad hoc [when necessary or needed (adverb); created or done for a particular purpose as necessary (adjective)], ad nauseam (to talk about a subject for so long it becomes tiring) and vice versa (conversely), whilst we commonly use ‘etc.’, an abbreviation of et cetera. In the science field we are acquainted with ‘et al.’ – the appropriate abbreviation for et alia (and others). Nectar derives from exactly the same word nectar in Latin. Astrology and astronomy are derived from the Latin for a star, astrum (plural astra), nebula and nebuliser are derived from the Latin nebula, meaning mist. In other cases the Latin origin is less clear; in Latin, plumbum is the word for lead, thus a person who worked with lead became known as a plumber and until more recently water used to be delivered throughout the home in lead pipes. From the Latin amicus for friend are derived ‘amicable’ in English, ‘ami’ in French, ‘amico’ in Italian, ‘amigo’ in Portuguese and Spanish and ‘amic’ in Romanian. From the Latin libertas for freedom are derived ‘liberty’ in English, ‘liberté’ in French, ‘libertà’ in Italian, ‘liberdade’ in Portuguese, ‘libertad’ in Spanish and ‘liberty’ in Romanian.
In bacterial nomenclature, names are Latin or Latinised words and such names are usually printed in italics (or underlined in manuscripts). The names of all taxa are Latin or latinised words treated as Latin, regardless of their origin. An example taken from LPSN – the List of Prokaryotic names with Standing in Nomenclature is Aeromonas salmonicida, for which the etymology is given as: L. n. salmo -onis, salmon; L. suff. -cida, murderer, killer; from L. v. caedo, to cut or kill; N.L. n. salmonicida, salmon-killer. The species epithet is derived from a Latin noun, a Latin suffix and a Latin verb to make effectively a new Latin word; here the N.L. stands for Neo-Latin (a word treated and used as a Latin word). A further example, with a part derivation from Greek is the genus Pseudomonas, whose etymology is given as Gr. masc./fem. Adj. pseudês, false; L. fem. n. monas, a unit, monad; N.L. fem. n. Pseudomonas, false monad, based on a Greek adjective and a Latin noun. Similar rules may be found in the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants and the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. In medical terms too we see Latin origins: cartilage from cartilago, the Latin for gristle; and cutaneous from cutis, the Latin for skin.
In bacteriology, new names are proposals and their use is not mandatory. Any name published in the International Journal of Systemic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM) and in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature of Prokaryotes (ICNP, formerly the Bacteriological Code) is validly published. There is thus no such thing as a ‘correct name’ for a bacterium; all validly published names are ‘correct’ and one need not meekly accept the latest proposal as soon it is published. Although it is generally advisable to adopt new names and to keep abreast of nomenclatural changes it is ultimately the scientific community that determines whether a new name comes into general acceptance; it is not automatic. In a similar vein, language usage is ultimately determined by what society generally accepts or deems to be correct. Just as more than one name can be used for a single bacterium, so different endings of a single plural become acceptable. Thus, as an example, people can choose between the Latin plural ‘hippopotami’ or the anglicised version ‘hippopotamuses’, as both may be found in dictionaries. So, will we see the acceptance of ‘funguses’ as well as ‘fungi’ as alternative plural forms in years to come? At least here we are just considering words appreciated to have a pluralised form.
Whilst knowledge and use of Latin lives on in the medical and scientific fields, here too we see forgetfulness of Latin roots, particularly a lack of appreciation of words having both plural and singular forms. For example, the Latin medius means middle or intermediate, something which facilitates achieving something, whether communication or microbial growth. Thus the internet is a medium, so is a newspaper, so is radio and so is television, but collectively they are the media – plural, communicating knowledge to us (we may commonly but erroneously think of a medium only as a person who facilitates communication with the spirit world). Similarly, each of blood agar, MacConkey agar and nutrient agar is a medium but they are all media – plural, allowing us to grow bacteria. In a similar vein, the Latin word datum, literally ‘given’ has come to mean a single piece of information, fact or statistic. In English usage we rarely use the singular term datum (in the UK an ordnance datum is a vertical datum used by an Ordnance Survey as the basis for deriving altitudes on maps); we most commonly use multiple pieces of information – data, plural. Yet this is so often forgotten these days. We see odd evolutionary trends in the English language, driven by a lack of knowledge; witness the widespread use of the meaningless apostrophe in plurals in recent years (as in chip’s and video’s). This lack of knowledge is also driving an acceptance of plurals as singular (especially in American English), or at least confusion as to which is plural and which singular. In the Biologist in 2020 have been printed ‘a sulphur-reducing bacteria’ and ‘in which bacteria is cultured’; elsewhere have appeared ‘meet this criteria’; ‘latest data is’; ‘that data was’; ‘your data is’; ‘social media has’. If you have read this article then you no longer lack the knowledge of our Latin roots and can therefore reflect them in your own writings if you so choose. Pax vobiscum! [Peace be with you!]