Greek & Latin in Botanical Terminology

Introduction to the Embryophytes, Section Contents:

  1. Overview of land plant relationships (coming soon!)
  2. Origin of land plants
  3. The land plant life cycle
  4. Spores (coming soon)
  5. Greek and Latin in botanical terminology

Page by: Elizabeth J. Hermsen (Paleontological Research Institution)

Feature Image: Parthenon, Athens, Greece. Credit: Parthenon (Tim Bekaert, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain). Image modified from original.

Singular-plural pairs

Many technical terms used in paleobotany and structural botany do not form plurals in the standard English way (by adding "-s" or "-es"). Rather, they transform in other ways. For example, a single sporangium (spore-producing structure) becomes plural sporangia, not sporangiums. Why is this? It is because many terms follow Latin, and less commonly Greek, rules for forming plurals.

Latin has five declensions (categories) and three genders (feminine, masculine, and neuter) of nouns. Each declension follows different rules for forming plurals, which is done by changing word endings. In declensions where word gender varies, word endings are additionally determined by gender. Word endings also vary by the role of the word in a sentence (for example, subject, object, possessive, etc.). All of this may seem a bit confusing to an English speaker. However, you do not have to be a Latin scholar to use Latin nouns in English. Many Latin words used in English (whether truly taken from classical Latin, created later, or Latinized) follow the structure of first and second declension Latin nouns in the nominative case. The nominative case is the form a noun takes when used as the subject of a sentence.

  • 1st declension, feminine, nominative: words ending in -a in the singular end in -ae in the plural.
  • 2nd declension, masculine, nominative: words ending in -us in the singular end in -i in the plural.
  • 2nd declension, neuter, nominative: words ending in -um in the singular end in -a in the plural.

The word genus (the taxonomic rank above the species) does not follow the rules above, even though one might assume that it should take an "-i" in its plural form. Instead, it becomes genera in the plural. This is because the word "genus" is a 3rd declension neuter Latin noun. Its plural is made by adding an "-a" to the root for the word genus ("gener-").

You can consult an English dictionary for a summary of the Latin and Greek singular and plural noun forms frequently encountered in English. You can also look up individual words in order to find their plural forms. Note that the Latin/Greek or English plural form can be used for some terms (for example, cactus can become cacti or cactuses in the plural). In scientific writing, Latin and Greek endings are often the ones favored, although exceptions exist. For example, the word stigma (the pollen-receiving part of a flower's carpel or pistil) commonly takes the plural form stigmas rather than stigmata in botany.

Singular endingPlural endingWord formPlant vocabulary examplesOther examples
-a-aeLatingemma, gemmaealumna, alumnae; larva, larvae
-ex, -ix-icesLatinapex, apicesindex, indices; matrix, matrices
-ies-iesLatinspecies, speciesseries, series
-is-esLatinsymbiosis, symbiosesanalysis, analyses
-ma-mataGreekstoma, stomataschema, schemata
-on-aGreektaxon, taxaphenomenon, phenomena
-um-aLatinantheridium, antheridiadatum, data
-us-iLatinstrobilus, strobilialumnus, alumni

The building blocks of vocabulary

Scientific terminology can seem like a bunch of intimidating jargon. Many scientific terms, however, are made up of building blocks that have Greek, or sometimes Latin, roots. If you can recognize these building blocks and understand their meanings, it becomes easier to understand and learn scientific terms.

The table below lists some prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms that commonly show up in structural botany and paleobotany, along with examples of terms in which they appear. You can use this table to help you remember (or even figure out) the meanings of terms. As an example, let's look at the term "megasporophyll." It consists of three building blocks; we can find the meanings of these building blocks by consulting the table below:

  • mega- = large
  • sporo- = spore
  • -phyll = leaf

Thus, mega + sporo + phyll = large-spore leaf. In fact, a megasporophyll is a leaf that bears structures that produce large spores (megaspores) in heterosporous plants. What is a heterosporous plant?

  • hetero- = different
  • -sporous = spore

Thus, a hetero + sporous plant is a different-spore plant. Specifically, it is a plant that produces two types of spores: microspores and megaspores. Using the table below, can you figure out what a microspore is? How does it differ from a megaspore?

Some notes on the table: Definitions, word origins, etc., have been simplified. For prefixes ending in "a" or "o", the "a" or "o" may be dropped before a vowel; the modified prefix shown in parentheses.

Word partLanguageOriginMeaningExamples in structural botanyOther notes
a-, an- Greeknot, withoutasexual
ab-Latinabaway, fromabaxial
actino- (actin-)Greekaktisbeam, rayactinosteleThis combining form often indicates a radiating or star-like structure or symmetry.
aero- (aer-)Greekaērair aerenchyma
ad-Latinadto, towardadaxial
allo- (all-)Greek allosdifferent, otherallorhizic
amphi- (amph-)Greek amphiboth, on both sidesamphiphloic
angio-
(angi-),
-angium
Greekangeioncase, container, vesselangiosperm, gametangium, sporangium
andro-
(andr-)
Greekandromale, manandroecium
aniso- (anis-)Greekanisosunequalanisophyllous
apo- (ap-)Greekaposeparateapocarpous
-archGreekarchēbeginning, point of originendarch
auto- (aut-)Greekautosselfautotrophic
bi-Latinbistwobisexual
bryo- (bry-)Greekbryonmossbryophyte
carpo-
(carp-),
-carp,
-carpic,
-carpous
Greekkarposfruitapocarpous, carpel, mericarp, mesocarp, schizocarp, sporocarp, syncarpousReferring to a carpel or fruit, part of a fruit (e.g., mesocarp), or having carpels or fruits of a given type (e.g., apocarpous). May also refer to a fruit-like structure (e.g., sporocarp).
cauli- (caul-), caulo-,
-caulous
Greek, Latinkaulos, caulisstalk, stempachycaulousIn the form of an adjective, having a stem of a given type.
ceno- (cen-), caeno- (caen-), caino-
(cain-),
-cene
GreekkainosrecentCenozoic, PaleoceneThe ending "-cene" is used for the names of epochs in the Cenozoic era (e.g., Miocene, Pliocene).
chloro- (chlor-)Greekchlōrosgreenchlorophyll
chrono-
(chron-),
-chrony,
-chronous
Greekchronostimeheterochrony
clado- (clad-)Greekkladosbranchcladophyll
coleo- (cole-)Greek koleoscovering, sheathcoleorhiza
coeno- (coen-)Greekkoinoscommoncoenocytic
-cot, -cotyl,
-cotyledon, -cotyledonous
Greekkotylēdōncotyledons (seed leaves)hypocotyl, monocot, monocotyledon, monocotyledonousIn seed plants, the cotyledons are the "seed leaves" that occur on the sporophyte embryo in the seed. The ending "-cot" is a short version of cotyledon (monocots or monocotyledons are seed plants having one cotyledon).
crypto-
(crypt-)
Greekkryptoshidden, secretcryptogam
cyto- (cyt-),
-cyte, -cytic
Greekkytoscellcoenocytic, sporocyte, statocyte
derma- (derm-), dermo-,
-derm,
-dermis
Greekdermaskindermal, endodermis, phelloderm, protodermTypically, referring to the outer tissue ("skin") of the plant body, although may be used in the names of other tissue layers (e.g., endodermis, which is considered part of the cortex).
di-Greekdi-twice, twodioecious
dictyo- (dicty-)Greek diktyonnetdictyostele
diplo- (dipl-)Greekdiploosdouble, paireddiploid
e-, ex-Latinex-absent, noteligulate, exindusiate
ecto- (ect-)Greekektosoutsideectomycorrhiza
-enchymaGreekénchymainfusionaerenchyma, parenchyma, sclerenchymaIn plants, this ending denotes a tissue (e.g., parenchyma) or the cells that make up a given type of tissue (e.g., parenchyma cells).
endo- (end-)Greekendonwithinendarch, endodermis, endogenous, endosperm, endosporic
epi- (ep-)Greekepion, over, uponepigeous, epigynous, epiphyte
eu-Greekeugood, trueeuphyllophyte
exo- (ex-)Greekexōouter, outsideexogenous
-formLatinformain the form offusiform, scalariform
fusi-Latinfususspindlefusiform
-gam, -gamy, -gamousGreek gamiamarriage, unioncryptogam, phanerogam, siphonogamy, zooidogamy
gameto- (gamet-)Greekgameînto marrygametangium, gametophyteUsed as a prefix for structures or organisms that produce gametes (e.g., gametangium, gametophyte).
-gen, -gene,
-genous
Greek-genēsgenerating, giving rise toendogenous, exogenous, Paleogene, spermatogenous
-genyGreek-geneiaoriginphylogeny
-geousGreekgeearthepigeous, hypogeous
glauco- (glauc-)Greekglaukosblue-green, gray, or opaqueglaucophyte
gravi-LatingravisheavygravitropismIn gravitropism, indicates a response to gravity.
gymno- (gymn-)Greekgymnosnakedgymnosperm
gyno- (gyn-), -gynous,
-gyny
Greekgynēfemale, womanepigynous, gynoecium, hypogynous, hypogyny
haplo-
(hapl-)
Greekhaploossinglehaploid
hetero- (heter-)Greekheterosdifferentheteromorphic
homo-
(hom-)
Greekhomosthe same, similarhomosporous
hydro-
(hydr-)
Greekhydōrwaterhydrophyte
hypo- (hyp-)Greekhypounderhypocotyl, hypogeous, hypogynous
im-Latinnotimperfect
in-Latinnotincomplete
inter-Latininterbetweeninterfascicular
ir-Latinnotirregular
iso- (is-)Greekisosequalisomorphic
ligni- (lign-), ligno-Latinlignumwoodlignin, lignophyte
litho- (lith-)Greeklithosstonephytolith
matri-
(matr-), matro-
Latinmatermothermatrotrophy
mega-
(meg-)
GreekmegaslargemegasporeA prefix denoting large structures. It also denotes egg-producing (female) structures in heterosporous plants.
meri-Greekmerispartmericarp
meta- (met-)Greekmetaafter, latermetaxylem
meso-
(mes-)
Greekmesosmiddlemesarch, mesocarp, mesophyll
micro-
(micr-)
GreekmikrossmallmicrosporeA prefix denoting small structures. It also denotes sperm-producing (male) structures in heterosporous plants.
mono-
(mon-)
Greekmonosone, singlemonocot, monocotyledon, monocotyledonous, monophyletic
morpho- (morph-),
-morph,
-morphic,
-morphous
Greekmorphēform, shapeheteromorphic, isomorphic, morphology
myco- (myc-)Greekmykēsfungusectomycorrhiza
-oecium,
-oecious
Greekoikoshouseandroecium, dioecious, gynoecium
ont-Greekeinaibeing, existencehaplontic, diplontic, haplodiplontic
ortho- (orth-)Greekorthosstraight, uprightorthotropic
pachy-Greekpachysthickpachycaulous
paleo-
(pale-),
palaeo-
(palae-)
Greekpalaiosancestral, ancient, oldpaleobotany, Paleozoic, Paleogene
penta-
(pent-)
Greekpentefivepentaploid
peri-Greekperiaroundperigynous, peristome
phanero- (phaner-)Greekphanerosvisiblephanerogam
phello-Greekphellosbark, corkphelloderm
-phile, -philyGreekphiloslovingornithophily
-phoreGreekphorosbearing, bearer ofpneumatophore, sorophore, sporangiophore
phyllo- (phyll-),
-phyll,
-phyllous,
-phyllum
Greekphyllonleafanisophyllous, chlorophyll, cladophyll, euphyllophyte, mesophyll, phyllotaxis, sporophyllReferring to a type of leaf (e.g., sporophyll), a structure similar to a leaf (e.g., cladophyll), or a region/portion of a leaf (e.g., mesophyll). As an ending, may indicate a leaf pigment (e.g., chlorophyll).
phylo- (phyl-)Greekphylonkind, tribemonophyletic, phylogeny
phyto-
(phyt-),
-phyta,
-phyte
Greekphytonplantbryophyte, euphyllophyte, gametophyte, hydrophyte, lignophyte, Monilophyta, sporophyte, xerophyteThe ending "-phyta" is used to denote the rank of phylum (division) in plant classification; the ending "-phyte" is used more informally and may correspond to a phylum or to an unranked grouping of plants (e.g., euphyllophytes). It can also indicate a type of plant (e.g., xerophyte, a plant adapted to arid environments).
plagio- (plagi-)Greekplagiosobliqueplagiotropic
plecto- (plect-)Greekplektostwistedplectostele
pneumato- (pneumat-)Greek pneumaair, breathpneumatophore
poly-Greekpolysmanypolysporangiophytes"Polysporangiophytes" includes more combining forms on this list. Can you find them?
pre-Latinpraebefore, earlierprepollen
pro-Greek/Latinprobefore, earlierprocambium, progymnosperm
proto- (prot-)Greekprōtosfirstprotoderm, protoxylem
pseudo- (pseud-)Greekpseudēsfake, falsepseudoelater
pterido- (pterid-)Greekpterisfernpteridophyte, pteridosperm
pycno- (pycn-)Greekpyknoscompact, densepycnoxylic
-pyleGreekpyleopeningmicropyle
rhizo- (rhiz-), -rhiza, -rrhizaGreekrhizarootallorhizic, coleorhiza, ectomycorrhiza, rhizoid, rhizomeReferring to roots, structures with similarities to roots (e.g., rhizoids and rhizomes), or things related to roots.
sarco-
(sarc-)
Greeksarxfleshsarcotesta
scalar-Latinscalarisladderlikescalariform
schizo- (schiz-)Greekschizeinsplitschizocarp
sclero- (scler-)Greeksklēroshardsclerenchyma, sclerotesta
siphono- (siphon-)Greek siphonpipe, tubesiphonogamy, siphonostele
soleno- (solen-)Greeksolenpipe, tubesolenostele
sporo-
(spor-),
-sporic,
-sporous,
-spory
New Latin/Greeksporasporeendosporic, homosporous, sporangium, sporocarp, sporocyte, sporophyte
sperma- (sperm-), spermo-, spermato- (spermat-)Greekspermaseed, spermspermatogenous, spermatophyte
-sperm,
-spermous
Greekspermaseed, seed-bearingangiosperm, endosperm, gymnosperm, pteridosperm
stato- Greekstatosbalance, restingstatocyte
stomo- (stom-),
-stome,
-stomate
Greekstomamouthstoma, peristomeReferring to a pore or another type of opening.
sym-, syn-Greeksyntogether, withsymbiosis, syncarpous
taxo- (tax-), taxi-,
-taxis, -taxy
Greektaxisarrangement, orderphyllotaxis, taxonomy
-testaLatintestashellsarcotesta, sclerotestaIn plants, the testa is the seed coat.
tetra- (tetr-)Greektettarafourtetrad, tetrasporic
thigmo-Greek thigmatouchthigmotropism
tri-Greektri-threetricolpate
triplo- (tripl-)Greektriploostripletriploid
-troph,
-trophic,
-trophy
Greektrophikosnutrition, relating to nutritionautotrophic, matrotrophy
-tropic,
-tropism,
-tropy
Greek troposturn, turninggravitropism, orthotropic, plagiotropic, thigmotropismIn plants, indicates a growth response to a stimulus (e.g., gravity, touch) or orientation of growth (e.g., orthotropic, plagiotropic).
uni-Latinunusoneunisexual
xero- (xer-)Greekxērosdryxerophyte
xylo- (xyl-),
-xylic, -xylon
Greekxylonwood, having a given type of woodpycnoxylic
zoo- (zo-),
-zoic
Greekzōē, zōosanimal, motilePhanerozoic, zoidogamy/zooidogamyIn structural botany, used to indicate motility (e.g., zoidogamy). In geology, used in the names of eons and eras (e.g., Mesozoic).

Selected references & further reading

Note: Free full text is made available by the publisher for items marked with a green star.

Books & textbooks

Evert, R.F., and S.E. Eichhorn. 2013. Raven Biology of Plants, 8th ed. W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, New York. 

Online dictionaries

* Dictionary.com: https://www.dictionary.com/

* Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online): https://www.merriam-webster.com/

* Mahoney, K., and the Latdict Group. 2002–2019. Latdict [This site has a Latin-English dictionary and covers some Latin grammar]. http://latin-dictionary.net/

Websites discussing Latin & Greek plurals, with examples

* Hirst, R. Forming Greek- and Latin-derived nouns [a short and simple summary]: http://web.utk.edu/~hirst/460/nouns.html

* Lexico: Plurals of English nouns taken from Latin or Greek: https://www.lexico.com/en/grammar/plurals-of-english-nouns-taken-from-latin-or-greek

* Nichol, M. 2016. Daily writing tips: Latin plural endings. https://www.dailywritingtips.com/latin-plural-endings/2016.

* Wikipedia: English plurals [this page includes an in-depth discussion]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_plurals

Other

2002. A dictionary of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms from Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged. Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts. [PDF distributed by Scripps National Spelling Bee, spellingbee.com]

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Page first released: 24 October 2019; last updated 31 October 2019.