A Reader Disputes Dr. Know’s Understanding of Latin and Trees

Our writer turns to the International Plant Name Index, Plants of the World Online, and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Oh, it’s on!

Tryon Creek State Natural Area. (Blake Benard)

Use of surnames in botanical binomials generates bad English and horrid Latin, a language that requires agreement in gender, case and number. The traditional cognomen of the Douglas fir is Pseudotsuga (“false hemlock”) taxifolia (“having yew-like leaves”), both noun and adjective being first-declension feminine nominative singular. Please get this right next time. —Forest Gimp

The May 15 Dr. Know, about how the Douglas-fir got its name, also included the scientific name, Pseudotsuga menziesii. (It rhymes with sleazy-eye, if you wanna move your lips when you read.)

Given that my angle was “annoying pedantry,” I suppose I can’t bridle at your tone, Forest. Still, I feel compelled to defend my honor. It may not be the most clickbait-y column of my career—being basically a no-name version of an MMA fight between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal—but let’s get ready to rumble! (To the extent that two poodles on their hind legs pawing each other are “rumbling.”)

The main problem with your argument, Forest, is that it’s wrong. Being wrong isn’t always fatal—God knows, I’ve taken positions requiring me to rise above it—but in this case, there are easily consulted, authoritative sources. The International Plant Name Index, Plants of the World Online, and ITIS (the Integrated Taxonomic Information System) all agree that since 1950 the accepted name has been P. menziesii, with P. taxifolia noted as an old-fashioned synonym.

I’m more sympathetic to the claim that, due to the delightfully convoluted nature of Latin grammar, Pseudotsuga taxifolia is what the name should be, ITIS be damned. Unfortunately, I have to admit that—contrary to the vibe I like to throw off—I did not actually attend Eton alongside Bertie Wooster and the young Sherlock Holmes, and thus never studied Latin.

Like I’m gonna let that stop me! It’s true that in P. taxifolia the noun Pseudotsuga (false hemlock) and the adjective taxifolia are nicely in agreement. However, because the menziesii in P. menziesii is not an adjective, but rather a noun in the genitive, or possessive, case (man, just listen to those clicks rolling in!), it need not agree with the preceding noun. Indeed, its gender is dependent not on that of Pseudotsuga, but that of Scottish naturalist (and noted dick-swinger) Archibald Menzies himself.

Is P. menziesii perfect Latin? Maybe not. But how many hairs do we really need to split for a language whose last native speaker died before Charlemagne was born? The defense rests.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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