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Latin names: Gravitas ad infinitum


Would a Rosa rubiginosa by another name smell as sweet? We may have a chance to find out; since Jan. 1, newly discovered plant species no longer need to be fully described in Latin to be considered valid, as they have been for centuries.

The names and in-depth descriptions, a requirement that traces back to the era when Latin was the common language of scientists, now seem almost quaint - a way, perhaps, to keep classics majors employed. A major impetus for the change was time: Species are disappearing faster than they can be officially named and described.

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But that same trend may also be an argument for keeping at least the names themselves in Latin. The names for plants and animals might seem a bit stuffy, but they lend a kind of timeless gravity to a spider or a squirrel, sending a message that even the littlest shrub has a claim on the eternal.

The world is in the midst of the sixth “great extinction,’’ with thousands of species disappearing under the stress of manmade forces like pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The last comparable mass extinction killed off the dinosaurs. Names can’t stop that trend. But they can serve as a reminder that something great is lost with every flower that blooms for the last time.

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