Botanists agree to loosen Latin’s grip

Latin is a bit like a zombie: Dead but still clamoring to get into our brains.

In one discipline, however, Latin just got a bit deader.

For at least 400 years, botanists across the globe have relied on Latin as their lingua franca, but the ardor has cooled. Scientists say plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names, but they have decided to drop the requirement that new species be described in the classical language. Instead, they have agreed to allow botanists to use English (other languages need not apply). In their scientific papers, they can still describe a newly found species of plant — or algae or fungi — in Latin if they wish, but most probably won’t.

“The new chatter is in chemicals and molecules,” said Laurence Dorr, one of three Latinists in the Smithsonian Institution’s botany department who would help their colleagues translate. “It was heading toward extinction,” said Warren Wagner, department chair.

The change, effective Jan. 1, is more than just academic. Smithsonian botanists alone might introduce as many as 100 new plant species a year, discovered either on their travels or in the national herbarium, a collection of 5 million dried specimens housed at the Natural History Museum. Globally, scientists discover 2,000 new species per annum. As many as one in five of the world’s plant species have yet to be identified, and not until they are named and known to the scientific community can they can be protected and studied further.