Formality of Latin description

Frederick J. Peabody fpeabody at SUNFLOWR.USD.EDU
Wed Nov 22 09:04:33 CST 1995

On Wed, 22 Nov 1995, Wolfgang Wuster wrote:

> On Mon, 20 Nov 1995, Joseph E. Laferriere wrote:
> > Wolfgang Wuster replied:
> >
> > > Requiring the description to be in Latin will not prevent this kind of
> > > thing. What will prevent it is a requirement for a holotype to be
> > > deposited in a major natural history collection, and a requirement to
> > > publish description in peer-reviewed journals - the peer-review process
> > > would hopefully weed out bad descriptions.
> >
> > Laferriere  replies:
> >
> > The Latin description does indeed prevent the sort of thing to
> > which I was referring, i.e. inadvertant publication by someone not even
> > realizing the name he/she is using is new. The Latin description at least
> > forces the author to make the conscious decision to coin a new name.
> > Invalid names are still used frequently today, in contexts similar to
> > that which I described. However, without the Latin description they are
> > nomina nuda devoid of any standing. Thus we can all just ignore them.
> How common a problem are these inadvertent publications of new names? In
> herpetology at least, my impression is that in practically all cases,
> authors using new names do so deliberately and know what they are doing. I
> appreciate that this may be different in other disciplines.

Inadvertent publication of names in botanical "literature" was, and in
some cases is, a problem when one considers "seedsman" publications.  In
years-gone-by (and I have seen some yet today) it was common for
retailers to offer plant materials, some of which were collected from the
wild, to the general public.  Since many of these "offerings" were in the
vernacular the requirement for a Latin description to legitimately
publish a new taxon was designed to obfuscate many of these
"publications."  The degree to which this requirement accomplishes its
purpose is, I suppose, debatable depending on the discipline one
chooses.  At least in the field of systematic botany, the requirement of
a Latin description, holotype, etc. has cleared the air of many
references that otherwise would need to be accounted for.  As has been
pointed out previously, obtaining references of many of these is next to

> The far bigger problem in herpetology is a large number of amateur reptile
> keepers, without any training in systematic techniques or theory, who go
> around describing new taxa "because they kinda look different". These
> lousy descriptions are then published in an obscure language in the even
> more obscure Bulletin of the Greater Bloggsville Naturalists' Club, where
> they are extremely difficult to find, and may trip up serious workers
> later. At least in the case of European amateurs of this sort, I suspect
> that introducing a requirement to have a latin diagnosis would merely
> result in these amateurs buying a latin dictionary and writing "it's red
> with two black spots on the head" in latin. Elementary latin is much
> easier to pick up than taxonomic theory, unfortunately.

It is true that once one establishes the requirement of a Latin
description for a new taxon that any and all persons would be able to
meet the minimum requirement by simply providing a few Latin words,
whether they made any sense in and of themselves or not.  In botanical
nomenclature the ICBN specifies that either a description OR a diagnosis
in Latin is required.  A diagnosis is generally shorter than a
description, hence there is less to translate into Latin, and presents
only the salient features of the taxon being described, i.e. those
features that make the new taxon different from its closest relatives.
Apparently many people have made the assumption, as stated above, that
"elementary Latin" is easy to "pick up," and, armed with a "classical" Latin
dictionary, have attempted to render readable Latin descriptions and
diagnoses.  To say that training in classical Latin in our society, at
least in the U.S., is abysmally poor is a gross understatement.  The fact
is that it is all but nonexistent.  Botanical Latin is a highly
specialized form of Latin with its own syntactical form and a very rich
vocabulary of, understandably, descriptive terms.  William T. Stearn's
excellent work, entitled Botanical Latin, sets forth the proper methods
to use in constructing Latin descriptions and diagnoses.  I recommend
that anyone who is interested in systematic biology obtain a thorough
understanding of this work before attempting a Latin composition.  From
reading the botanical literature, both past and present, it is apparent
that many editors either did not care or were not qualified to judge the
usefulness of the botanical Latin provided by authors.  Many of these
attempts at botanical Latin make no sense at all, with misplaced
modifiers, wrong number, gender, or case, etc.  It would seem that if
there was a token Latin phrase that this was enough to satisfy the
editorial process.

> What is really
> needed is both a quality control mechanism, and a mechanism that will stop
> obscure publications from being used as a means of publishing descriptions
> which are too awful to appear in any reviewed journal.
> >     The requirement for holotype designation has been in effect in botany
> > for nearly 40 years, and I support it.
> Agreed 150%

The type concept is absolutely essential.

> > However, requiring that the
> > publication be in a peer-review journal is not currently the case, and I
> > for one would strongly oppose any move to institute such a requirement.
> > Several reasons: 1) I would envision a 30-year debate over what would
> > quaify as a "peer-reviewed journal;" 2) how would a reader tell whether a
> > journal is peer-reviewed or not by looking at it;
> This could be remedied by instituting an official list of acceptable
> journals, which could be based on the likes of Current Contents (although
> with a broader coverage). Such a list would settle point 1 and 2. I
> appreciate that this would not be easy and would generate considerable
> debate, but I do feel that it would at least be worth considering.

This is such a big "can of worms" that any attempt to specify in which
journals one can legitimately publish new taxa, IMHO, would be so
difficult that any benefits derived would be greatly outweighed.  There
are new journals that come into existence, changes in editors and
editorial style, changes in journal emphasis, etc. that any attempt at
regulation would be a nightmare.

> The proposed 5-year rule for inclusion in the Zoological Record would
> solve some of these problems, but, as previous debates here and/or on
> ICZN-4 have shown, this measure is not uncontroversial either.
> >3) many species today
> > are published in book-length monographs, not journals, and I see no
> > compelling reason to change this.
> I see no reason why the authors of such monographs should not either
> publish their monographs in periodicals which specialise in monographs and
> are reviewed (e.g., many museum journals),

This is a good point and one that should be considered, although many
times there is a limitation on funding for page charges, since
publication in monographs associated with the peer review process is
generally very costly.

> or why they should not take the
> descriptions from the monographs and publish them in journals. The
> information of the original description can then be presented again as
> part of the general monograph.

Often this is done, but for a different reason.  The lag time in the
issue of a monograph is longer and the author may wish to obtain an
earlier publication date (for priority considerations) that relatively
rapid publication in a shorter journal article would provide.  I am not
sure that this duplication of publication, with the exception of the
situation noted above, is necessary.  It would seem to me that most
monographs would normally run through a review process.  What we may need
is closer attention to Latin descriptions and diagnoses in general.

> Examined and published doctoral
> dissertations might constitute an acceptable exception.

What is the reasoning for holding doctoral dissertations as an exception?

> I accept that these proposals may turn out not to be good ideas, but it
> may be worthwhile to discuss them in a forum such as this.
> --
> Wolfgang Wuster
> School of Biological Sciences, University of Wales, Bangor, UK
> e-mail: w.wuster at
> Thought for the day: If you see a light at the end of the tunnel,
> it is probably a train coming your way.

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