Why scientific names of animals & plants are made difficult to spell & remember?

Mango: it is easy to spell.

Corvus splendens: it is difficult to spell

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ It's not difficult to spell if your an 18th century naturalist who speaks Latin. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Jan 30, 2015 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ Take the cat: felis domesticus - domestic feline. Take it to a slightly higher level, wolf: canis lupus - lupine canine("lupine" as an adjective ultimately originates from Latin). $\endgroup$
    – busukxuan
    Jan 31, 2015 at 15:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is childish and not about biology in terms of SE Biology. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Feb 7, 2019 at 18:23

4 Answers 4


The reason scientific names are difficult to remember is because the scientific names are given in Latin. There are rules to be followed when naming a organism. That the name must be in the form of Genus species is one of those rules.

For a person who knows latin, it would be just as easy as the English names are for a English speaking person.

In earlier days, Latin was considered the language of the scholars. That was the reason Latin was chosen for binomial nomenclature. As scholars of all languages learned Latin, just hearing the name would give the hearer an idea of what the organism is even if (s)he had not seen it in person.

For more on scientific naming and rules while naming see:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binomial_nomenclature
  2. http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/binomial-nomenclature-definition-classification-system.html
  3. http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/rules.html

The thing is that there is such a language called Latin that is used to name species. During Linnaeus' times when he created the binomial naming system, Latin was the prevalent lingua franca among international scholars. Therefore, all the species names actually make sense, though only hardly so in English.

Names that make a little sense in English include:

  • Wolf: Canis lupus - Lupine canine
  • Domestic cat: Felis domesticus - Domestic feline
  • Wild horse: Equus ferus - Feral equine

These make sense because many English words originate from Latin, be it directly or through French.

Some of the words used in binomial names are Latinization of Greek words (that there are not such words in Latin itself), or valid Latin words that originally came from Greek, so some names would also make sense in Greek. Besides some English words also trace back to Greek.

  • Lion: Panthera leo - Latin word which originated from Greek
  • Megalania - Latinization of Greek neologism "mega"+"elaino" = "Great roamer"
  • Baker's yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae - Latinization of Greek "sacchar" + "myces" = "sugar fungus"
  • Penicillium chrysogenum - Latinization of Greek "chrysos" + "genos" = "Gold maker" as it produces a yellow(golden) pigment

Beyond those are names coined after locations and discoverers:

  • Flores man/hobbit: Homo floresiensis - Latinization of the location of discovery, Flores
  • Common kingslayer: Malo kingi - Latinization of the name of the victim, Robert King, whose death by the jellyfish's venom led to its discovery (note that the English common name also came from the name of the victim)

Some species are also named with Latinization of words in other "native" languages, such Panax ginseng, named after the Chinese name 人参 (I'm not sure exactly what dialect/topolect it is).

Beyond species names, Latin is also used in other parts of biology such as anatomy:

  • Biceps femoris: Two-headed muscle of the femur
  • Vena cava superior: Upper hollow vein
  • Corpus luteum: Yellow body (body as in object)
  • Ileum: Guts/intestines

Beyond biology, Latin is used in meteorology to name clouds, astronomy as the common name of stars (Bayer designation), and remains an official language of the Holy See (the authority of the Vatican) as well as the motto of many organizations:

  • Cirrostratus fibratus - fibrous layered cirrus(curly hair) cloud
  • Sirius: Alpha canis majoris - Alpha (number one) star of the constellation canis major
  • Old motto of USA: E pluribus unum - "Out of many, one" (signifying unity among states)

The question bares a resentment to awkward sounding Latin names. It is unfortunate, since there is surely logic in Latin nomenclature.., but admittedly it is also unfortunately a steep learning curve to learning some Latin. Anyway, having one gold standard nomenclature, no matter how stupid it sounds, is a blessing for scientist of the field (it's coming from a genomics-ist dealing with alternative gene names on a daily basis where there is no Latin-like-gold-standard and alternative databases compete for rightfulness of their logic and nomenclature). I work on a protein called Mili, and in dozens of papers it is called so, but I cannot guess without googling how it is called in RefSeq or Ensemble power houses of genomic annotations


Scientific names look complicated because they are written in Latin yet English speakers attempt to pronounce them following their language's rules.

In actuality, Latin and its derived languages (such as Spanish), have very straightforward and simple rules regarding pronounciation. Each sound generally corresponds to one character only, which does not happen in English.

The following are some pronounciation rules of Latin.

  • A is always pronounced as the A in "Ant".
  • E is always pronounced as the E in "Entity".
  • I is always pronounced as the I in "Ignorant".
  • O is always pronounced as the O in "Obelisk".
  • U is always pronounced as the double O in "tOO".
  • There are no silent vowels.
  • There are no silent consonants, to the exception of H, which is always silent.
  • K and W are not used.

With these rules in mind, read out loud Caenorhabditis elegans. As you can see, its original pronounciation is very simple, but the English one is not.

This is because Latin uses 23 characters to represent 23 sounds, while English uses 26 letters to represent 40 sounds. Many characters in English represent different sounds, mostly according to context. And to make matters more complex, they may even be completely silent, such as the "K" in the word "know" or the "E" in "late". The sounds corresponding to "know" and "now", would just be written as "nou" and "nau" in Latin.

What is even more strange to someone native to a Latin-derived language, such as Spanish, is that English uses two written vowels to represent one spoken vowels (such as "eat"). Or conversely, use a single written vowel to represent two or more vowels (such as the "a" in "ate").

Latin has 5 vowels, but English has many more. In latin you have just one "A" sound, but its equivalent in English has three variations, as the sound in "cut", "cat" and "car" are not the same. Don't be surprised if someone native to Spain uses the same vowel for "cut", "cat" and "car". Many non-natives find it challengeing to distinguish these sounds which just seem too similar to them.

With that being said, the question is why then, spelling and pronounciation is so notoriously hard to learn in English. The answer is that the Latin alphabet was not invented for it. The Latin alphabet was spread all over Europe during the second millennium, and English eventually was forced to adopt it.

Throughout history there have been several attempts to make English spelling irreducibly simple, so that each letter corresponds always and only to a single sound. In the last century, John R. Malone designed an alphabet called "Unifon". Logically, it had 40 characters, each corresponding to one of the 40 phonemes that make English speech.

Unifon alphabet. Image from Omniglot.com

However, as the alphabet reused many characters already present in the Latin alphabet, some people noted that it would be confusing for English speakers to learn it, as they are way too used to pronounce those characters according to context. Old habits die hard, and it is the same for pronounciation.

Some ten years later, the Shavian alphabet was invented.

Shavian alphabet. Imagen from Omniglot.com

Like Unifon, it also had 40 characters with each corresponding to only one phoneme. However, it was better in many ways. First, the symbols themselves look completely unlike Latin characters, in order to avoid having the previous "relearning" problem. Second, letters that represent similar sounds are just flipped or rotated versions of a single symbol, so that it is more intuitive. Thirdly, there were unique characters representing very common words such as "to" and "and". Finally, writing in Shavian is quick, as all characters can be written with a single hand movement.

It was very simple... But did not get popular after all, because yet again, old habits die hard.


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