About Orchid Names

About Orchid Names

Specific epithets are in Latin or in Latinized form. Since most are adjectives or adjectival in use, they must agree in gender with the gender of the genus to which they are attached. For this reason, most of the specific epithets listed are followed by one or two endings, each preceded by a hyphen; for example, the very first word under "A" is abbreviatus, -a, -um. In the case of the specific epithets ending in -us, the masculine form is shown first, followed by the feminine ending (-a) and then the neuter ending (-um). Some Latin adjectives, belonging to a different declension, end in -is; this form is both masculine and feminine, so only the neuter ending, -e, is added. An example is acaulis-e. Occasionally, a participial form is used as an adjective, in which case the specific epithet ends in -ens or in -ans in all genders, eliminating the need to show additional endings; an example is repens or fragrans.

Some specific epithets are taken directly from the Greek and retain the same form for all genders; chlorops is an example. Similarly, for various reasons, some Latin forms keep the same form for all genders; among these are anceps, ferox, major, minor and teres, to name but a few. Basically, the rules of classical (or Greek) grammar provide the rationale behind this seemingly arbitrary usage.

To ignore the content of the words is to overlook a fascinating world. The specific epithets that are descriptive adjectives are the easiest to understand; this is fortunate, since they probably constitute the largest group of such scientific names. The generic name is treated as a noun (which it is) with the specific epithet describing it as to color, form, structure, size, habit or some similar characteristic. For example, Cattleya violacea is the violet-colored Cattleya; Cyrtochilum macranthum, the large-flowered Cyrtochilum; Cypripedium acaule, the stemless Cypripedium; Ida gigantea, the gigantic Ida; Goodyera repens, the creeping Goodyera; and Eulophia alta, the tall Eulophia.

A few orchid species have specific epithets derived from the names of other genera of orchids, such as Dendrobium phalaenopsis (a synonym of Dendrobium bigibbum), Miltoniopsis phalaenopsis, Maxillaria sophronitis, and Epidendrum sophronitis, for example. 

Resemblance to another orchid, a plant of a different family, or some distinctive object may be expressed in the specific epithet; such terms usually end in -oides, as Encyclia oncidioides, the Oncidium-like Encyclia; or Thelymitra ixioides, the Thelymitra that resembles an Ixia; or Specklinia tribuloides, the Specklinia with a flower resembling a Roman tribulus, a four-pronged iron instrument. Parenthetically, according to W.T. Stearn's authoritative volume titled Botanical Latin, now in its third edition, every vowel in Latin or even Latinized Greek is pronounced, so that -oides should be pronounced "oh-EYE-deez" rather than "OY-deez." However, the latter pronunciation has fallen into such common usage among even professionals that the former would sound odd.

The country or place of origin may be indicated in the specific epithet; for example, Sobralia panamensis, the Sobralia native to Panama; Luisia zeylanica, the Ceylonese Luisia; or Spiranthes sinensis, the Spiranthes native to China.

Many orchids are named to commemorate people, and such specific epithets sometimes are governed by the following practice. If the name is a tribute to someone who has not been associated with that particular species in some manner but is simply being honored, the adjectival form -ianus, -a, -um, usually is used. Statesmen, patrons and benefactors were often thus glorified, as in such species as Paphiopedilum chamberlainianum (Joseph Chamberlain) – now a synonym of Paphiopedilum victoria-regina, named to honor Queen Victoria,Vanda sanderiana (Frederick Sander), or Phalaenopsis stuartiana (Stuart Low). If the person being honored had collected the orchid or was responsible in some way for its introduction into horticulture, the specific epithet might then be put into the genitive singular of a Latinized form of the person's name. If the person honored is a man, the suffix is -ii as in Brassia allenii (Paul Allen). If the person honored is a woman, the suffix -iae is used, as for Cattleya mossiae (Mrs. Moss, in whose collection the species flowered).

Although the proposal was made by Dr. Lindley in 1832 that specific epithets commemorating persons be governed by the procedures cited above, few botanists followed it, so that one cannot determine from the name of a species whether the person commemorated had anything to do with the species in question. For many decades, specific epithets commemorating a person were capitalized; while this is still preferred by a few taxonomists, the recommendation of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is to decapitalize all specific epithets regardless of their origins.

The names of genera are equally meaningful if we delve into their origins and derivations. One finds another Alice-in-Wonderland world when seeking the meanings in some of the cryptic generic names created by classically trained orchid taxonomists of the past. Within the text of this glossary, we touch briefly on this subject, but the reader can find more extensive coverage in Generic Names of Orchids by Schultes and Pease (1963). Suffice to say that little is required by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature beyond a standard Latinization. The Code states: "The name of a genus is a substantive in the singular number of a word treated as such. It may be taken from any source whatever and may even be composed in an absolutely arbitrary manner." Even anagrams, such as Nidema (rearranged Dinema) and Sedirea (Aerides spelled backward), may be used.

Were language only written, we might well conclude this introduction at this point. But words were first spoken, and then written language followed. As a result, we come face to face with the controversial subject of pronunciation.

All terminology in this glossary, with the exception of personal names and trade names, have a pronunciation guide in parentheses immediately following the word and, where necessary, the gender endings. In the pronunciation guide, each syllable is separated by a hyphen. Unstressed syllables are in lower case letters; those syllables printed in CAPITALS are stressed — that is, the accent falls on these. Occasionally, a word with many syllables may require a secondary accent, but in the interest of simplicity we have avoided its use on the principle that if the main accented syllable is stressed, the rest will follow.

We have not followed Academic Reformed Latin in favor of the traditional English form of Latin as commonly used in medicine, law or ordinary speech (angina pectoris, habeas corpus, vice versa) in the United States. Thus, the broad "a" (ah) of Latin becomes the long "a" (ay) when accented in such endings as -atus (AY-tus) or -anum (A-num)