Popular names of plants

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Botanists usually distinguish scientific names, which are in Latin, and vernacular names, or vulgar names, which are in spoken languages.

Linguists prefer to speak about popular names and scholarly names. Popular names are largely known and used by human groups in a spoken language (from a village to a country). Scholarly names are known only by particular professionnal groups (healers, physicians, pharmacists, botanists, agronomists), who consult scholarly books or transmit names orally from master to disciple. Every name is characterised by a distribution area, a historical time of use, a level of language...

In previous centuries, many scholars (botanists, agronomists) compiled popular names in their works, but they failed to take into account those characters. The result was an impression of great confusion, and even of "treachery of vernacular nomenclature" (Aline Raynal-Roques, 1994. La botanique redécouverte).

Complexity got worse with the creation by botanists of uninomial or binomial names literally translated from Latin, with the objective of being better understood by non-botanists. In order to indicate clearly that such names designate taxa, some botanists insist on having a capital latter as the initial.

For example, we have in French :

  • scientific name : Solanum tuberosum
  • botanical French name : Morelle tubéreuse
  • standard popular French name: pomme de terre
  • colloquial popular French name: patate
  • popular name in Ardèche in 1600 (Olivier de Serres) : cartoufle

In this case, a French will immediately perceive that "Morelle tubéreuse" is not in use. But a compiler with another mother tongue will retain this term when compiling the French names of potato. This has unfortunately occurred in many published dictionaries. Such artefacts can live for several centuries, faithfully copied from one dictionary to another, above all when we deal with multilingual dictionaries, the authors of which rarely master more than two or three languages.

Interest for historians

Wild plants locally used tend to bear very diversified popular names, which can vary from one village to another. On the contrary, plants which are cultivated, largely used and traded, tend to bear more stable names, and also scholarly names. When they travel, they often do so with their name. Such names may then be precious clues to reconstruct the wanderings of our most useful plants.

Working method

One thing should definitely be avoided: compiling indiscriminately all names found in dictionaries. Multilingual dictionaries should in particular be left aside, except when we are sure that the author has a personal and deep knowledge of the languages he deals with (for example, Bedevian for Arabic, Armenian and Turkish). Contemporary translations should also be avoided, as they are often false. On the contrary, old translations have a historical interest, but must be considered as such.

Scholarly names are also to be avoided, as they are only copies of scientific Latin. This kind of names is easy to trace for somebody with a good knowledge of the language. This leads to another recommendation: please favour the languages you know best! An exception is when scholarly names have got a real use in the language, which is the case for many ornamentals; they must then be retained.

The best sources are technical manuals, cooking books, in general all the books which have a practical objective and use the ordinary names of laypeople. Books written by linguists and ethnolinguists (dictionaries, atlases, monographies) are also precious. Floras offer the advantage of a good identification of plants, but popular and scholarly names have to be sorted. Moreover, botanists rarely localise the names they collect.

Every time, care should be taken to date and localise the name, and to give any precision about the context of its use (for example, in French, patate and pomme de terre, as well as haricot and fayot, designate the same plants, but have different social statuses.

When a quotation gives elements allowing to identify a plant, it is useful to reproduce it.

See also : How to collect and cite popular names?

Names in diverse languages and countries

Europe and Mediterranean areas