Why Are Latin Names Often Used in Science?​

Why Are Latin Names Often Used in Science?

Especially in branches of science such as medicine, biology, and chemistry, we often come across Latin nomenclatures. It is called “felis catus” instead of a cat, “dihydrogen monoxide” instead of water. The vast majority of medical terms come from Latin.

So what makes Latin so special?

Latin is a Dead Language!

Let’s first look at what it means for a language to be dead. Let’s start our article with a Native American proverb that hits us with the bitter truth of life:

A person dies when the last person who remembers him dies!

We can edit this word for languages ​​as follows:

“A language dies when the last person who speaks it dies!”

Yes, we can say that Latin is dead because no one actively speaks it today. But the number of people who can read Latin is quite large. The reason for this is that this language is used very often, especially in science.

Changes in the Meaning

The fact that a language is dead indicates that this language cannot change. This is not the case in living languages. We can really think of language as living beings. It can change over time, and the meanings of words can narrow or expand under the influence of cultures. Or it could mean completely different things.

There are many similar situations in every language. Languages ​​that are actively used will inevitably change. Changing the meaning of words can have dangerous consequences, especially in sciences such as medicine, biology, and chemistry, which are closely related to the field of health. In these areas, the meaning of a word should not change, as in the case of oğlan. Possible meaning changes may cause critical errors for the treatment to be applied.

Latin Sentence
Memento Mori
(English: Remember You Are Mortal)

Latin, on the other hand, has not undergone any change since it has not been used as an official language in any country for centuries. Therefore, towards the end of the 17th century, it was thought that Latin, which was a dead language, would be more appropriate to use in scientific writings in order to avoid confusion.

Carl Linnaeus

Latin, which started to be used under the leadership of the Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus, who is accepted as the founder of taxonomy, was accepted by scientists in all countries in a short time and turned into a tool for understanding nature.

Carl Linnaeus began to classify living things and developed a system that would use only two words” for these classifications. (A third word is used today to denote subspecies.) Before Linnaeus, scientists had to describe a living species in long sentences when naming it. Therefore, the system of Linnaeus was accepted by many scientists. In this system, the first word denoted a more general name, while the second word denoted the group to which the creature belonged. For example, the name “felis domesticus“, which means domestic cat, indicates that there is a felis cat, while domesticus indicates that it is domestic.

Carpe Diem
Carpe Diem
(English: Live in the Moment)

On Use by Experts

It is also important that some words are from a dead language so that they are only used by experts in that field. This is not about trying to belittle the ignorant public or show that scientists are superior. Expressing these words in an actively used language will increase the rate of these words being mistaken. Therefore, it is critical that some concepts be in a language that only experts in the field can understand and only be used upon their recommendation.

Some fun…

There are also some names that are fun to say. Bufo bufo bufo, for example, is a subspecies of the warty frog. Gorilla gorilla gorilla is a Western lowland gorilla. 

These denominations are mostly in Latin, but there is no such obligation. Scientists sometimes get bored and want to have fun. For example, in 1977, entomologist Arnold Menke discovered an insect specie. As soon as he realized that this specie was a new one, he turned to his colleague next to him and said, “Ah, a new genus,” and his colleague said suspiciously, “Huh?” he replied. That’s why he named the Australian wasp he discovered, Aha ha. Yes, scientists’ sense of fun can be weird sometimes!

Fun Latin Names

The pronunciation of Latin words may seem a little scary, but don’t worry. Because Latin is a dead language, no one knows exactly what the correct pronunciation is, although there are a few accepted rules. Stand in front of the mirror and gather your confidence and shout felis domesticus. Who knows, maybe it’s the correct pronunciation of what you said.


Pronunciation of words will become important if you are in a magic class at Hogwarts. ( is not responsible for injuries caused by the mispronunciation of spells.) Because Latin is not only the language of science but also the language of magic. Many of the incantations in the Harry Potter universe are in Latin. Here are a few spells and their meanings:

Expecto Patronum: I’m Waiting for the Protector

Petrificus Totalus: Make All Stones!

Lumos: Light (derived from the word Lumen)

Nox: Night

(iPhone users can turn on the phone’s flash by saying Lumos to Siri and turn it off by saying Nox. Try it!)

Wingardium Leviosa: Soar With Wings!

I leave the famous “Wingardium Leviosa scene by Hermione Granger below 🙂

References and Further Readings

Aha ha. (2020, July 06). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from

Lavoipierre, F. (2016). It’s All Greek to Me! Retrieved February 27, 2021, from

Renfro, K. (2016, January 12). The real linguistic inspirations behind 13 ‘Harry Potter’ spells. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from

Change of meaning in the word. (2020, June 16). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from

You can access the sources of the images used by clicking on the images.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Mete Esencan

Hello everyone! I'm Mete Esencan. I am a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at METU. I was planning to establish a platform by combining the research knowledge I gained during my basic science education and the management experience I gained in the METU Chemistry Society, which I was in charge of for three years. For this purpose, in February of 2021, I took the first step and established the OkButWhy, a platform where we can write articles as if to chat about science, art and philosophy. I wish everyone a pleasant reading!

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