Saturday, March 12, 2016

Unnecessarily arcane botanical terminology

Sometimes the personal libraries of retired colleagues who want to downsize, or other left-over old books, are made presented in the corridor of our herbarium so that staff can pick what they still find useful. I have in this way acquired a number of valuable books, especially old Australian or New Zealand floras.

Recently I have in the same way picked up a book with great (unintentional) entertainment value. It is Taxonomic Terminology of the Higher Plants by H. I. Featherly in a 1973 reprint of the 1959 edition, published by Hafner Press. In case it isn't immediately clear, it is mostly a glossary of botanical terminology. To illustrate what is so funny about it, let's open the book randomly on pages 62 and 63 and look at a few selected entries just from this double page. Blue text is from the book, black font are my comments.

Sword-shaped -a. Ensiform.

Here I wonder if the entry is the right way around. Should the technocratic gobbledegook not be on the left, and the everyday language on the right?

Syncolliphytum -n. A plant in which the perianth becomes combined with the pericarp.

Syrtidophilous -a. Dwelling on dry sand bars.

Systellophytum -n. A plant with a persistent calyx appearing to form part of the fruit.

Tachyspore - n. A plant which quickly disperses its seeds.

Taphrophilous -a. Ditch-dwelling.

Does the world really need any of these terms? Did it ever?

Systerophyte -n. A plant which lives on dead matter; a saprophyte.

How helpful that the book provides the better known term (saprophyte) which made the creation of the additional term systerophyte completely unnecessary from the get-go. Note also that to the best of my knowledge there are no plants that are saprophytes; there are autotrophic plants and parasitic plants, and that is it. It is possible that some plants that are parasitic on saprophytic fungi were once taken to be saprophytic themselves.

Don't get me wrong, we cannot do without technical terminology. There are two legitimate reasons why we need words that will unavoidably be gobbledegook to non-specialists. One is that we need words for concepts that do not have a word outside of our science because they are only relevant to the specialist - structures that people usually don't see or care about, for example. The other is that one might want a short word for what would otherwise require a longer explanation, like hapaxanth (a plant that only fruits once in its life and then dies*) or clade (a group including all descendants of its common ancestor).

Many of the entries in this glossary do not fulfil either criterion. Worse, however, is that they do not even fulfil the implicit underlying criterion of being necessary in the first place. I have studied and worked in botany for nearly two decades (depending on when in my undergraduate time you start counting), I have never come across any of them, and I did not miss them.

These terms look as if even a professional plant taxonomist or ecologist would need them so rarely - if at all - that it would be easier and much less confusing in those cases to simply write "calyx persistent on the fruit" or "growing in ditches". One consequently cannot escape the suspicion that the words were invented merely to show off one's knowledge of ancient Greek, to make simple plant morphology appear like an inaccessible mystery, and thus to actually impede what we now call science communication.

Of course that is not the fault of the present book. The fault lies with whatever taxonomists first made up these arcane terms, necessitating their subsequent inclusion in the glossary.

Still, the book has more to offer. I may at some point want to write about some of the scientific concepts presented in its appendix...


*) This is not the same as annual, as some hapaxanth plants can live for many years. Examples are some species of bamboo or Echium wildpretii, also known as the "pride of Tenerife".

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