The End of Latin

As of 1 January 2012, there is no longer a mandatory requirement in the botanical code of nomenclature for a newly described species to have a Latin description. The requirement had been in place since 1935. Much of the classic botanical literature had been published in Latin as it was the language of learning. Also because Latin was a dead language it was believed that its meaning was fixed and would not drift through usage as is the case with modern languages. However, it had become a burden as there are fewer and fewer scientists skilled in Latin so becoming a publication bottleneck for many researchers.

When I did my PhD I described 10 new species of Amanita and one Squamanita species. With a Latin dictionary I can translate a simple Latin description. If it is more complex I tend to get lost in the grammar. I drafted very simple Latin descriptions but did not attempt to correct the grammar as this was beyond me. Instead I asked my mother-in-law, Ruth Patterson, to do it for me as she had an MA from the University of Otago in Latin. I was always very grateful for the help she gave me.

Latin txt

My attempt at a Latin description in black and Ruth’s corrections in pencil.

Ruth Catherine Macmillan Patterson (nee Sewell) died Good Friday, 2013.

Ruth's capping, 8 May, VE Day, 1945

Ruth’s capping, 8 May, VE Day, 1945

To quote from my wife Rachel’s eulogy to her mother:

She was happy at high school, made good friends and was academically successful. When she finished school in 1941 Aunty Glen, who was married and living in Dunedin, said that Mum should live with them and attend Otago University and Mum’s parents agreed.
In those days, to enrol, you had to go and see each of your professors. On Mum’s first day she couldn’t manage to track any of them down and went home despondent. Glen consoled her, but as Mum headed out the door the next day she said “I wonder if the staff will all hide from you today?”

Mum loved university – she liked the academic challenge, she loved the polite and interesting professors and she truly loved living with Glen and Les and their children. She left at the end of 1945, when she was twenty-one, with an MA in Latin and English, and went the next year to Auckland Teachers’ Training College.

This was one of the most fun years of her life. She stayed in a hostel with other women teacher trainees and she made friends for life. There were men at the Training College who were back from the war and Mum loved their irreverent attitude to life and particularly to the college. She enjoyed herself.


From when Geoff and I first met he and Mum got on well. They argued endlessly about the English language, she translated his scientific findings into Latin for publication and they enjoyed each other’s company.

This is a tribute to Ruth and her contribution to New Zealand mycology. At the time of the funeral, the Amanita muscaria was fruiting under the Nothofagus menzeisii and N. solandri in Baring Square West, Ashburton.

Amanita muscaria under Nothofagus, Baring Square, Ashburton, 5 April 2012

Amanita muscaria under Nothofagus, Baring Square, Ashburton, 5 April 2012

Ridley, G.S. 1988. Squamanita squarrulosa, a new species from New Zealand. Persoonia 13: 459-462.
Ridley, G.S. 1991a. The New Zealand species of Amanita (Fungi: Agaricales). Australian Systematic Botany 4: 325-354.


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