Quid valet? (What does it mean?)

Latin names have always been tiny puzzles to unravel. But why did anyone go to the trouble of inventing them? John Wright's charming book gives some answers
I was sitting amidst the clamour of my fellows when the dark and skeletal form of Dr Parker walked into our classroom for the fi rst time. He turned an unsmiling face to his assembled, and suddenly silent, Latin class and, looking a little like an undernourished owl, stood and stared. After two minutes of increasingly uncomfortable silence, he exclaimed: ‘What a disgusting smell of boy!’

This unpromising beginning might explain why I never took to Latin at school. In the third year, Dr Parker called me into his study to tell me that it would be in the best interests of everyone concerned if I took extra maths or geography instead. I am of course being unfair to Dr Parker, a thoroughly nice fellow who had simply hit upon an excellent method of making a useful and lasting first impression. The real reason for my failure as a Latin scholar was that it was hard work and I couldn’t see the point of it. No one spoke it, no one wrote it and most Latin texts could be obtained in English translation in the extremely unlikely event I would ever want to read one.

It was during my first Latin-free term that I found the Daldinia in the New Forest and my lifelong obsession with fungi and their strange names began. Some 30 years later, I started to share my enthusiasm with others by leading fungus forays. These are jolly aff airs, when we spend a day searching wood and field for any fungus that might be found. I name and discuss every new fi nd and trust that my students will go home with a new appreciation of the fungal kingdom. People are always enthusiastic, and I happily field endless questions all day long. One particular variety of question, however, is a little more trying than most.

‘I found some trooping pink fairy bonnets in the garden the other day; do you see them very often?’

So starts many a conversation.

My invariable reply, given through the most pleasant smile that gritted teeth will allow, is: ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about.’

Crestfallen and concerned by my unexpected ignorance, my enquirer will nevertheless persevere: ‘Surely you know them, I see them all the time.’


But, of course, I do not have the faintest idea what they are talking about. A trooping pink fairy bonnet could be any mushroom, at least any that is pink and with an inclination to troop. I can think of 30 species that fi t the name. At least it is better than ‘brown cap’, say, which would suit several thousand species.

‘Trooping pink fairy bonnet’ is a common name, just like ‘sundew’, not in the sense of being vulgar (although they can be that too – the dandelion is sometimes called ‘pissa- bed’, for example), but in the sense of being everyday names for things. Unfortunately the everyday names of plants, fungi and animals do not travel well.

For example, what is now usually known as the guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is the Lancastrian’s dogwood, the Kentishman’s gatterbush, the Somersetshireman’s mugget and the Gloucestershireman’s king’s crown. I rather like the name they give it on the Isle of Wight – ‘stink tree’: a highly appropriate name, as I know to my cost, because the berries smell (and taste) of sick.

Things have settled among the plants reasonably well in Britain and many other parts of the world, where more-or-less standard countrywide names for native plants have been encouraged by guidebooks and modern methods of communication. Local names are disappearing into history, lamented only for their charm, not their utility. However, ‘guelder rose’ is not used throughout the English-speaking world: the plant is also known as water elder, European cranberrybush, American cranberrybush and snowball tree. And, of course, the guelder rose does not insist on living among English speakers. In Spain it is mundillo, in France boule-deneige, in Germany Schneeball.


Animal names are less variable than those of plants, and all English speakers will know what you mean if you say you have been bitten by a dog or eaten a salmon. But variation still exists. Not everyone would understand if you said you had shot a black-neb (crow) or tripped over a foulemart (polecat). And the problem with names from other countries and cultures still remains.

Mushrooms and other fungi suffer most peculiarly in the matter of common names because they seldom have one. With interest growing in wild fungi for food, this absence has encouraged people to make names up. I am afraid I have done so myself when someone has insisted that I provide a common name for a mushroom they have found. I come up with random gems, such as ‘copper knight’, ‘ash shield’ and ‘clustered elf ear’. People always seem happy enough to hear my dubious inventions, even when I explain that I might have provided them with the wrong one and that the fungus might not actually have a common name anyway. I took the trouble to familiarise myself with Latin names, so, perhaps rather churlishly, I just tell people to buckle down and learn them too. However, I have been slightly thwarted in my evangelism.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 introduced the requirement that all UK species in need of protection have a common English name. While nearly all British plants and large animals were possessed of one, most fungi were not, so the British Mycological Society set about creating ‘common’ names for all but the most obscure. Some of them put my own inventions to shame. We now have the dung cannon (Pilobolus crystallinus), the cabbage parachute (Micromphale brassicolens), the crystal brain (Exidia nucleata), the mousepee pinkgill (Entoloma incanum) and, my personal favourite, the midnight disco (Pachyella violaceonigra). While I don’t mind telling someone that the little mushroom in their hand is called Tubaria furfuracea, I do feel embarrassed when informing them that they have a ‘scurfy twiglet’. There is nothing particularly wrong with these names, but they lack the weight and authority that comes with long usage. Also, I don’t think they really help: if people are having diffi culty with names, the last thing they need is a whole new set of them. In my opinion, it is simply not possible to make up common names and expect them to become a useful currency.


The glorious confusion of common names is just part of human culture and something to be treasured, not dismissed. But confusion, glorious or otherwise, is of no use in science or in the activities informed by science. A scientific paper on the social habits of some Peruvian lizard is useless if it does not tell you which Peruvian lizard. It is of no help to give the local name, because that means nothing to anyone except the locals.

Every bit as important is the fact that most organisms (by a very long way) do not have a common name. Camel, cat and capybara are familiar enough, but there are millions of insects and other invertebrates, for example, which are far too unimportant in everyday life to warrant one. Who, apart from a specialist, needs to call a little bug that lives inside the wing cases of cockroaches anything? Most species do not have a common name because most people could not care less if they had one or not. However, it is among the tasks of science to explore and understand the world outside everyday experience, and consistent names for everything it studies are essential. This, ultimately, is what Latin names are for.

Extracted from The Naming Of The Shrew: A Curious History Of Latin Names, by John Wright (Bloomsbury, £14.99).


Agra katewinsletae A slender, beautiful beetle.

Agra schwarzeneggeri A beetle with bicep-like femora (a segment of its leg).

Albunea groeningi A sand crab, after Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. It is pale yellow.

Crikey steveirwini A land snail.

Han solo A trilobite. I know.

Litarachna lopezae A mite, for Jennifer Lopez. Not because it looks like her, but because the scientists like Jennifer Lopez.

Norasaphus monroeae A trilobite with an ‘hourglass-shaped glabellum’.

Preseucoila imallshookupis A gall wasp – perhaps one that buzzes more than usual.

Psephophorus terrypratchetti A fossil turtle – what else could it be?

Scaptia beyonceae A horsefl y blessed with a perfectly round and golden rear end.