Number. 43 © CDTL 2004
Understanding and Learning Scientific Names of Species
Associate Professor Hugh T.W. Tan
Department of Biological Sciences
Tan Kai-xin
Department of Biological Sciences

Scientific names of species of bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals are those which conform to one of the codes of nomenclature––rule books for composing names (e.g. wild plants' scientific names or botanical names must conform to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature). Codes are available for viruses, bacteria, wild plants, cultivated plants and animals.

Scientific names are no longer the monopoly of the biologists; with the 21 st century becoming the century for biotechnology, life sciences or biology, these names are now frequently and regularly finding their way into newspapers, television and radio as well as everyday speech, so it's useful to know some of them. In the competition recently held to search for the fastest SMS texter in the world, for example, the organisers have incorporated scientific names into the test sentence, “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world”!

Scientific names are etymology-based, meaning that both components of the name are Latin and/or Latinised words (which are derived from another language, such as Greek––the source of most non-Latin words). However, unless you have a photographic memory, scientific names are notoriously difficult to remember as they are in a language most of us are unfamiliar with and usually consist of many seemingly random syllables. But with some understanding and effort, they can be better committed to memory.

Scientific names of species consist of two parts: a generic name and either a specific epithet (used for bacterial or plant names) or specific name (used for animal names). The scientific name Homo sapiens applies to humans. Homo is the generic name and derives from the Latin homo meaning ‘man'. The specific name sapiens derives from the Latin sapiens , meaning ‘wise'. Because scientists classify humans as animals, we have a specific name component in our scientific or zoological name. The above, however, does not apply to the scientific names of virus species and they only get English names (e.g. avian influenza A virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, tobacco mosaic virus). Viruses are not exactly living organisms, as they cannot replicate themselves on their own (a vital characteristic of life) and need a host organism of another species to survive.

In citing scientific names, it is important to note that the generic name has a first letter written in upper case, with the rest in lower case (e.g. Homo ). The specific name is written all in lower case (e.g. sapiens ). When one is word processing or typesetting scientific names, one should always use a different font from the rest of the text (e.g. if the text is in regular font, as is this article), then print the scientific name in italics; if the text is in italics, then print the scientific name in regular font. The scientific name should be underlined when writing in one's own handwriting (e.g. Homo sapiens ).

One of the best ways to learn the scientific name of an organism is to check out its derivation, easily available from the websites and books listed in the “List of Useful Guides and Materials” below. For example, the generic name of Escherichia coli (partially abbreviated as E. coli , because of its numerous applications in science and public health) is pronounced as “eh-shuh-RIK-ee-uh” and is quite difficult to remember. However, once we realise that it is so named after its discover Theodore von Escherich, the seemingly random combination of vowels and consonants takes on meaning. The specific epithet, coli , pronounced “KOH-lie” derives from the Greek kolikos meaning ‘of the colon' which is part of the large intestine where many strains of this species thrive. Psychologists have indicated that when we attach or associate bits of information to others, it's easier to remember them. Learning how to pronounce the scientific names will also help you remember better as in all probability, you won't be able to remember something you can't pronounce! This can be easily learnt from the references listed below.

Learning the name also becomes easier if you know what the species looks like, as memory experts have indicated that using pictures or mental images to represent words enhances memory for those words. Many organisms have images available on the Internet and using search engines for images (e.g. Google images) can quickly find you a picture, even for something as tiny as Escherichia coli !

Finally, using these names regularly in speech and writing enables you remember them better. As in learning skills or exercising muscles, “use it or lose it”!

List of Useful Guides and Materials

Meanings of Scientific Names

Gotch, A.F. (1979). Mammals, their Latin Names Eexplained: a Guide to Animal Classification . United Kingdom : Blandford Press Ltd.

Gotch, A.F. (1996). Latin Names Explained: a Guide to the Scientific Classification of Reptiles, Birds & Mammals . United States : Facts on File, Inc.

Hyam, R. and R. Pankhurst. (1995). Plants and their N ames : a Concise Dictionary . Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Isaak, M. (2004). Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature. (Last accessed: 24 Jun 2004 ).

Jaeger, E.C. (1955). A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms . 3rd edition. Springfield , Illinois : C.C. Thomas.

Stearn, W.T. (2002). Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners: A Handbook on the Origin and Meaning of the Botanical N ames of Some Cultivated Plants . Portland , Oregon : Timber Press.

Watts , D. (2000). Elsevier's Dictionary of Plant N ames and their Origin . Amsterdam : Elsevier Science, B.V.

Pronunciation of Scientific Names

Jaeger, E.C. (1960). The Biologist's Handbook of Pronunciations . Springfield , Illinois : C.C. Thomas.

Ommundsen, P. (2002). Pronunciation of Biological Latin. . (Last accessed: 24 Jun 2004).

Radford, A.E. (1986). Fundamentals of Plant Systematics . ‘Botanical names'. New York : Harper & Row.

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