Plant Cuttings

Latin name or scientific name, where do you stand?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", said Shakespeare - who clearly hadn't met any botanists.

Recently, the gentlefolk who oversee the Annals of Botany blog site and Mr Cuttings have been engaged in good old-fashioned healthy debate about what to call scientific binomials, those two word official names that every described organism has. And that debate has revolved around whether they should be referred to as ‘Latin names’ or as ‘scientific names’.

One of the bilingual English and Latin signs at Wallsend Tyne and Wear Metro station. It reads "Platform 2 / Suggestus II / No Smoking / Noli Fumare".
One of the bilingual English and Latin signs at Wallsend Tyne and Wear Metro station. Chris McKenna / Wikipedia

I acknowledge that in formulating such binomials the words must follow the rules of Latin grammar (and are therefore Latinised), which is emphasised by the words being given emphasis in italic script (as is also the case in UK and US English for unfamiliar Latin words and foreign phrases). But, I also recognise that the words used in those names are often derived from languages other than Latin, such as Greek, Japanese (e.g. the genera Tsuga, and Ginkgo), slang/conversational English (e.g. the genus Hebejeebie), etc. For the latter reason in particular I think that binomials are best described as scientific names rather than Latin names (and which nicely contrasts with the term ‘common names’ by which most plants are also known in everyday conversation).

In support of my position, and as befits a scientific argument, I cite the following: ‘scientific plant names [P. Cuttings’ emphasis] are only those names which have been formally published according to the International Code of Nomenclature; they are also often known as botanical or Latin names’ [2nd paragraph, 1st page of article]. Interestingly, this quote is from an Editorial article entitled ‘Common mistakes when using plant names and how to avoid them’.

As a second endorsement I offer: ‘Writing the scientific names [P. Cuttings’ emphasis] of species (sometimes also called by their Latin names), is not that complicated’, from the blog site curated by Lena Struwe and which is devoted to … botanical accuracy.

But, let’s extend the debate. What do you think we should call these ‘scientific names’? Do you think it matters?* Do let me know.

* One way to avoid this – at least in botany – is to call the binomial the botanical name, which neatly sidesteps the issue.


Dauncey, E. A., Irving, J., Allkin, R., & Robinson, N. (2016). Common mistakes when using plant names and how to avoid them. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 8(5), 597–601.

About the author

Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.


Click here to post a comment