List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names

This list of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names is intended to help those unfamiliar with classical languages understand and remember the scientific names of organisms.

The binomial nomenclature used for animals and plants, and the names used for higher taxa such as families and orders, is largely derived from Latin. At the time when Linnaeus devised the hierarchical scientific classification of living things, Latin was the international language of science, so it was natural that he should use the Latin name of each animal as its definitive scientific name. Although Latin is now largely unused except by classicists, the use of Latin names remains. It is helpful to the non-classicist to be able to understand the commoner words that arise in scientific names, and the table lists some of these; while the Latin names do not always correspond to the current English common names, they are often related, and if their meanings are understood they are easier to recall.

Often a genus or species name is simply the Latin or Greek name for the animal (e.g. Canis is Latin for a dog). These words are not included in the table below, because they will only occur for one or two taxa. The words listed below are the common adjectives and other modifiers that turn up repeatedly in the systematic names of many organisms.

Not all the words or parts of words used in scientific names for living things are derived from Latin. Some are derived from Ancient Greek, some from languages local to the places where the organisms are found, and many from the names of the people who first described a species or other taxon. However all are treated grammatically as if they were Latin words. In particular this means that to indicate possession, the endings -a and -us turn into -ae and -i respectively , and non-Latin names of people add -i if male and -ae if female. So "Humboldt's penguin" has the binomial name Spheniscus humboldti. Note too, from this example, that despite the fact that Humboldt is a proper name, the rule that species names do not have a capital letter takes precedence. The list includes personal names only where their Latin form is markedly different from their English or other original language form, so that it might be difficult to guess the relationship. Words that are very similar to their English forms are not included.

Note that not all the attributions to languages in this table are authoritative.

Latin/Greek
word or part word
language
L=Latin
G=Greek
LG=similar in
both languages
English translation
albaLwhite
arcturusLnorthern
argentatusLsilvery
australisLsouthern
carboLcoal
caudatusLtailed
cephalusGhead
chloroGgreen
cristatusLcrested
cyanoGpurple
dactylusGfinger or toe
dermisGskin
di-Gtwo-
domesticusLdomestic or house
dorsalisLback
echinusGspine
erythroGred
familiarisLcommon
fuscusLdark brown
fulvusLyellow
hibernicusLIrish
lateralisLside
leucusGwhite
ludovicaniLLewis's
majorLgreater
maximusLlargest
melanusGblack
minimusLsmallest
minorLsmaller
mono-Gone-
morphusGshape
nigerLblack
novaehollandiaeLAustralian
novaesellandiaeLNew Zealand
obscurusLdark
occidentalisLwestern
orientalisLeastern
parvusLsmall
pelagiusGoceanic
penta-Gfive-
punctatusLspotted
rufusLred
saurusGlizard
striatusLstriped
tetra-Gfour-
tri-Gthree-
ventrusLbelly
vulgarisLcommon


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