Learning Bio Etymology

PART – 1





‘Language’. In a broader sense, ‘Language’ is the method of communication that involves the use of various languages (in various countries) spoken by man. Articulation of words in a definite sequence is the basic of formulating a Language and knowledge of words forming it and their ‘sense’ is of utmost importance. Accumulation of a treasure of words constitutes what is called ‘Vocabulary’ defined variously as follows: 1. The words of a language. 2. The body of words used in a particular language. 3. All the words that exist in a particular language or subject. 4. A list or collection of the words or phrases of a language, technical field etc. 5. A listing either selective or exhaustive, containing the words and phrases of a language, with meaning or translations into another language. Over a period of time in past centuries, Science is general and Biology in particular has accumulated a vast array of words to communicate fact(s) or phenomena through deriving their meaning.

    The lingua franca of the world:

lingua franca’ is an Italian phrase, meaning thereby ‘a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different’. English is one such language, spoken and understood by most people, regardless of their cultural and ethnical backgrounds. Hence, the phrase ‘lingua franca of the world’ is specifically used for English Language, spoken by about 400 million native speakers. Over a million more people speak this language as a second or foreign language.
  • Scientific Language and Terminology:

For the ‘LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE’ most of the scientific TEXT is communicated (written as well as orally) in English with an admixture of ‘technical words’, strewn in the language, derived from other languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish etc..

Scientific Terminology is the Vocabulary part of the language, used by scientists world over in the context of professional activities viz., naming and classifying any group of animals or plants (Systematics / Taxonomy), explaining any phenomenon etc. Thus, the Scientific Language remains precise and consistent worldwide.

  • International Scientific Vocabulary (ISV):

Over 100 years ago, in the beginning of 20th Century, the dominant language of Science was indeed German and even before that, Latin. The latter, was once a globally recognized language. ‘ISV’ is the name first used by Philip Gove in ‘Webster’s Third New International Dictionary’ (1961). It is a set of scientific or technical words derived from Greek and Latin roots and used in various languages, often with morphological alterations but with the same meaning’.

[Vocabulary < Mid 16th Century Medieval Latin vocabularius or Latin vocabulum = a list of words with definitions or translations].

[Ref.: https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › International_scientific_vocabulary]

  • Task of Enriching the Technical Vocabulay:
It has been a common experience that majority of the present generation at school/college level, pursuing ‘Biological /Life Sciences’, as one of the subjects, is poor/deficient at the knowledge of ‘Biological Language’ or more appropriately, lacks in the ‘TAXONOMICAL’ skills and it is found that they find it very difficult to go through smoothly the classification part (full of technical words) of Animal or Plants. As for any other language, it is most important for a student of BIOLOGY to develop expertise in enriching the BIOLOGICAL VOCABULARY, along with their meanings and explanations. Therefore, they must be taught in a manner as to simplify the ‘tough-appearing’ language and the words constituting it.Know one word’ and ‘know the fundamental characteristic(s) hidden in its meaning’, should be a must for a teacher to guide/train the students by strengthening their Biological Language. [Read More about Taxonomy: Instant Identification of Fishes in field; fishbiopedia.com]
  • The Etymological Approach to learn Biological Terminology (Bio-Etymology):
For any scientific study at school or college level, it is often very difficult for the students to memorize the facts and ‘tough-appearing’ scientific terminology. Memorization (or cramming) of any amount of information is only a short-term storage and usually does not last long. The only solution is not to ever memorize (or cram) but remembering the learned facts by understanding to the level of being well-understood and well-explained ‘tough-appearing’ scientific terminology. This stands true for ‘the ETYMOLOGY’ [Bio-Etymology, in case of Biology] of scientific terminology, ‘a discipline concerning with gaining knowledge about the origin and meaning of a particular word’. Like other technical terms, the Biological Terminology also majorly stems from Greek (G) or Latin (L) roots [other languages, too]. Only after knowing the meaning of these ‘root’ words, fundamentals associated with any word are well understood. Deriving the meaning and knowing the fundamental (basic) characteristic related with a particular TECHNICAL WORD, is the most important facet of teaching skills in classroom or otherwise. A vast list of Latin and Greek ‘root words’, commonly used in scientific names, can be searched in the books or digital resources (websites). Only after fading out of the fear of tough-appearing scientific terminology, through ‘word-meaning tactics’ repeatedly, anybody becomes familiar with the ‘unit(s)’ of which a particular word is made of. Whenever familiar ‘unit(s)’, forming the part and parcel of another technical word, is/are encountered, it becomes quite easy to understand what fact is going to be unveiled after scanning through the word. Suffice is to say that BIOLOGY (or any other science) becomes more interesting and absorbable to the students when the technical words used in the text related with various Biological facts or phenomena, are taught and let understood well by analyzing their meaning (followed by appropriate translation and explanation). Also important to know is that most of the words are ‘compound words’ i.e., made of by the combination of 2 or more ‘root words’ (= units). Some technical words are only single Latin or Greek [or other language] words. In case of a word with 2 or more units, the meaning is derived after joining of the meanings of constituent units and reading them from right to left (see Examples).
  • Points to remember about compound words:
    • Read and write the technical word from ‘left to right’ and derive the meaning of constituent units ‘right to left’, is the basic to be learned about understanding the technical terminology.
    • The word(s) preceding the ‘suffix’ [attached at the end] i.e., ‘prefix(es)’[attached in front of ‘suffix’] define the suffix like an Adjective. Therefore, the suffix is to be taken as a Noun.
  • EXAMPLES of Deriving Meaning of Technical Words:

  • Compound Words (having 2 or more units):

Example 1

Let us begin with analyzing the words BIOLOGY and ETYMOLOGY, referred in the foregoing.

BIOLOGY [ <  German word Biologie]:

BIOLOGY word is made up of 2 Greek units viz.,

bios + logos (logy)

For deriving meaning of BIOLOGY [and hence its basic diagnostic feature], the meanings of the 2 units are:


Therefore, the combined meaning of units, after reading from ‘right to left’ comes out to be ‘a study of or a discourse of study of life or living organisms’.

Thomas Beddoes (1799), Karl Friedrich Burdach (1800), Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1802) and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1802), independently introduced the term BIOLOGY in its modern sense.


The word ETYMOLOGY (= Greek word Etumologia) is also derived from 2 Greek words, the suffix [the unit present at the end of the word] ‘logy’ being the same as noticed in Biology:

etumon + logos (logy) = Etymology

For deriving meaning of ETYMOLOGY [and hence its basic feature], the meanings of the 2 units are:


Therefore, the combined meaning of units, after reading from ‘right to left’ comes out to be ‘a study of or a discourse of study of true sense or sense of a truth (i.e., of a word).

  • Things to remember:

1. From the analysis of the 2 compound words (Biology and Etymology), it should be made clear that, the meaning of ‘logos’ or ‘logy’ will never change whenever seen present in many technical words and the meaning (character) of ‘suffix’ ‘logos’ or ‘logy’ will be defined by different ‘prefixes’, as under: Zoology (zoon, animal), Cytology (cyton, cell), Histology (histos, tissue), Embryology (embryon, unborn), Palaeontology (palaeos, old), Microbiology (micros, small), Biotechnology (bios, life), Entomology (entomon, insect), Ichthyology (ikhthus, fish), Herpetology (herpeton, reptile), Parasitology (Latin parasitos , person who eats at the table of another), Ornithology (ornis, bird), Anthropology (anthropos, human being), Osteology (osteon, bone), Bryology (bryon, moss), Bacteriology (Gk. bakterion or baktron, L. bacterium, stick, rod: because first bacteria to be observed were rod-shaped), Dendrology (dendron, tree), Mycology (mukes, fungus), Agrostology (agrostis, a type of grass) etc. etc. The technical words referred above are given with the meaning of the ‘prefix’ in the parenthesis. Now meaning of these words can be derived after filling the blank by putting meaning of the ‘prefix’ in the blank space, preceded by the meaning of ‘suffix’ e.g.,

  • Zoology: (suffix logos) A study of or a discourse of study of or knowledge of animals (prefix zoon).
  • Agrostology: (suffix logos) A study of or a discourse of study of or knowledge of grasses (prefix agrostis).
[That is how the Learning process can go on, following this method] 2. There are many instances where a ‘unit’ of the technical word is seen sometimes as a prefix and sometimes as a suffix e.g., in Zoology, zoon is prefix but in Protozoa, Sporozoa, Mesozoa, Metazoa, Scyphozoa, Anthozoa, Pelmatozoa etc., ‘zoon’ is in the role of a suffix. Whether prefix or suffix, the meaning of the unit ‘zoon’ never changes but its role as a part of speech changes e.g., when zoon is prefix, it is defining (adjective) the suffix [Zoology; zoon, animal; logos, the study = the study of animals] but when it is suffix it is (a noun) being qualified by the prefix i.e., the grammatical role changes as per the situation of the unit in the technical word e.g., Protozoa [protos, first; zoon, animal = the animals which evolved first]. Similarly, the position of unit ‘bios’ (pre– or suffix) can be seen changing, but meaning will never change viz., As prefix: Biology, Biotechnology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Biostatistics, Biosphere, Biometrics, Bionomics, Biodegradable, Bioenergetics, Bioluminescence, etc. As suffix: Amphibia, Geobios, Limnobios, Abiotic, Symbiosis, Antibiosis, Anaerobiosis etc. 3. Certain words having suffix or ending with ‘biology’ communicate a specialized discipline of Biology viz., Microbiology, Psychobiology, Chronobiology, Hydrobiology, Neurobiology, Palaeobiology, Aerobiology, Cryobiology etc. 4. A few more words are suffixed by the term ‘biologist’, giving an indication about a specialist person of that particular field or discipline or technical branch of study (as denoted by the prefix) viz., Microbiologist, Psychobiologist, Chronobiologist, Hydrobiologist, Neurobiologist, Palaeobiologist, Aerobiologist, Cryobiologist etc. 5. In Biology, most often certain technical terms are encountered possessing a very popular suffix, plural word of Latin ‘ata’ [feminine of ‘atus’], added to the nouns to form adjectives e.g., Invertebrata, Coelenterata, Chordata, Eucoelomata, Acoelomata, Pseudocoelomata, Hemichordata, Echinodermata, Stomata etc. Literally, ‘ata’ stands for ‘a group’ or ‘a group of organisms characterised by a structure’. Example of derivation of meaning: Stomata is a word from Botany for minute pores on the leaves and otherwise. Thus, the meaning of Stomata can be derived as under: Greek stoma + Latin ata = Stomata stoma = mouth; ata = a group = a group of small mouths i.e., small pores.

[See ahead, Example 2, for deriving meaning of Echinodermata]

6. There are many more technical terms, used in various sciences, having similar ‘prefixes’ or ‘suffixes’. To be remembered again, that their place/position/location may change but meaning will not e.g., Archaeopteryx, Archaeozoic, Archenteron, Archigonia, Archaeology etc. All the words given above, from different disciplines, have a Latin prefix ‘arch’(ae/i) having the meaning ‘ancient, first, beginning or primitive’. Therefore, the meaning of all the above words related to different fields will be as follows: Archaeopteryx (Fossil Bird): arch + apteryx, wing (bird) = A first bird. Archaeozoic (Geological Era): arch + zoon, animal, life = Early life. Archenteron (Embryology): arch + enteron, gut or alimentary canal = Early/primitive gut (of an embryo). Archigonia (Botany): arch + gono, seed or gonad = Primitive gonad. Archaeology (History): arch + logos = the study of the ancient i.e., Ancient History.

[Make a list or more words with similar suffixes, along with their meanings]

Example 2

In Zoology, the name of an Invertebrate Phylum – Echinodermata is a compound word, made up of 3 Greek units viz., ehinos + derm + ata = Echinodermata For deriving meaning of Echinodermata [and hence its basic diagnostic feature], the meanings of the 3 units are: Echinodermata Therefore, the combined meaning of the constituent units after reading from ‘right to left’ comes out to be ‘a group of organisms characterized by the skin like that of a hedgehog’, the more simpler explanation being ‘the animals whose skin is covered with spines, tubercles, rods, cones or plates’ e.g., Starfish, Echinus (Sea Urchin), Sea Lilies etc..

Example 3

In Botany, the word Angiosperms deals with a diverse group of plants which bear flowers (= flowering plants) and produce ‘seeds’ enclosed inside a ‘fruit’. This compound word is made of 2 Greek units, viz., angion + sperma = Angiosperm For deriving meaning of Angiosperms [and hence its basic diagnostic feature], the meanings of the 2 units are: Angiosperm Therefore, the combined meaning after reading from ‘right to left’ comes out to be i.e., ‘seeds enclosed in a case’, the more simpler explanation being ‘the plant that produces seeds within an enclosure (= fruit).
  • Single Technical words:
Often such technical words are encountered which owe their origin from single Greek or Latin word.

Example 1

  • Amoeba:

In Zoology, a microscopic member of Kingdom – Protozoa [Greek, protos, first; zoon, animal i.e., ‘first animals’] is named as Amoeba and it is derived from Greek word amoibe and modern Latin Amoeba, which means ‘change or alteration’, the simpler explanation being, ‘an organism which continuously changes its shape’. Further, the name of Amoeba’s commonly-studied species is ‘proteus’, the complete name being Amoeba proteus. ‘proteus’ is derived from Greek mythology where there is a mention of a God named ‘proteus’, which literally means, ‘a god who could change his shape at will’. With reference to Amoeba proteus, the whole meaning comes out to be ‘an animal which can change the shape at will’; the explanation being that Amoeba has locomotory organs named ‘pseudopodia’, the variously shaped protoplasmic extensions produced in any direction of movement at its own will.

Example 2

  • Hydra:

Hydra is a member of Phylum – Coelenterata. The coining of name ‘Hydra’ has a history (similar to the origin of the word ‘proteus’). ‘Greek Mythology’ has a reference of 9-headed demon serpent named ‘hyder’ which grew 2 heads for each one cut off. On this very basis, Linnaeus (1758) coined the name ‘Hydra’ for these animals belonging to Coelenterata. The historical background: Abraham Trembley (1710 – 1784) was a Genevan naturalist, best known for being the first to study freshwater animal Hydra (Chlorohydra viridissima) and for being the first to develop experimental Zoology. Trembley’s experiments demonstrated Hydra’s ability, when cut in two, to regenerate complete individuals from each part and also its ability, when two individuals are grafted together, to form a single individual. In this manner he could produce 7-headed hydra (reminding the ability of the demon ‘hyder’). When all the 7-heads were severed, they regenerated again into 7 individuals.

Example 3

  • Sycon:

Belonging to Phylum – Porifera there is one widely taught type study of Sycon or Scypha which is derived from a single Greek word skyphos meaning thereby a ‘cup’, the simple explanation being that the body of the animal (a sponge) is long ‘cup-like’, hence the common name given to the sponge is ‘urn (= water vessel) sponge’. Synonymously, the shape of the body is usually described as ‘vase-shaped’ (flower vase-like). Try to derive the meaning of the name of a Class of Phylum – Coelenterata, Scyphozoa, where ‘scyphos’ is the prefix and ‘zoon’ is suffix.

Example 4

  • Reptilia:

As and when the question about ‘first land vertebrates’ is asked, the answer given is, ‘the tetrapods or quadrupeds (4-legged animals)’, belonging to Class – Reptilia (Phylum Chordata). The word Reptilia owes its origin from a single Old French word ‘reptile’, meaning ‘creeping or crawling animal’ or Late Latin ‘repre’, meaning ‘to crawl, creep’.

The appropriate explanation being, ‘those vertebrates which have the habit of creeping or crawling on the land’ as of Turtles, Tortoises, Lizards, Snakes, Crocodiles etc. This habit was an outcome of million years’ efforts made by some Amphibians to venture on to land at the end of Palaeozoic Era, continued into the Mesozoic (the Age of Reptiles) when the evolution of Reptiles was at its peak upon land, in air and in the Ocean.

Example 5

  • Aves:

Often described as ‘the glorified reptiles’, the ‘masters of the air’ or the ‘animals who have mastered the air’, are the flying Vertebrates belonging to Class – Aves (Phylum – Chordata). The word Aves is a plural form, owing its origin from the singular Latin word ‘avis’, meaning ‘ a bird’, evolving from the Reptilian ancestors at the end of Mesozoic Era, hence called ‘the glorified reptiles’. Thus, Class – Aves of Chordata, deals with a great diversity of ‘Birds’, characterized by wings and body covering of feathers.

Example 6

  • Sepal:

One of the parts of a flower is known as ‘sepal’. It is a single word originating from different languages viz., French sepale, modern Latin sepalum, Greek skepe , all of meaning ‘a covering’. The explanation of this word being that ‘a flower is protected by an outer covering’ (generally green) made of units (separate or united) called sepals, collectively forming a covering named as ‘calyx’ [Late 17th Century, Calyx borrowed from Latin and kalux from Greek = case (enclosure) of a bud].

Example 7

  • Corolla

One of the colourful parts of a flower is known as ‘corolla’ which is a single word originating from Latin ‘corolla’, meaning ‘a small garland, chaplet or wreath’, diminutive of the word ‘corona’ also meaning ‘a garland, chaplet or wreath’. Like Calyx, Corolla, too, is formed of separate units named as ‘Petals’, the name being derived from ancient Greek ‘petalon’ or ‘petalos’; modern Latin ‘petalum’, meaning ‘a leaf; leaf of metal, thin plate’ or ‘outspread, broad, flat’.



[Latin prefix bi = two]

‘two-term naming system’ or ‘two-name naming system’ is a formal system of naming of Plant or Animal species, each name being composed of two parts (units) borrowed generally from Latin [or Greek or other languages]. Such names are called ‘binomial names’, ‘binominal name’ or a ‘scientific name’. The first part of the name, the generic name, identifies the Genus to which a particular species belongs, whereas the second name, the specific name, identifies the species within the Genus. This formal system of naming is credited to Carl Linnaeus, used in Species Plantarum (1753) and now governed by International Codes of Nomenclature adopted by Biologists, world over.

  • Binomial names, the Languaue and Meaning:

The most common Language used for naming an animal, is the Latin (hence, the binomial name is often called as Latin Name’) e.g., The scientific name for human beings is Homo sapiens, Homo being the Generic name and sapiens, the species. The meaning, thus derived (from the constituent units, right to left) is:

  • Things to remember about scripting binomial names:

‘italic’ font e.g., Homo sapiens but when it to be hand written, Genus and Species should always be underlined separately e.g., Homo sapiens. Further, the name of Genus should always begin with a ‘capital letter’ and that of a species with ‘small letter’.

The ‘root words’ with two meanings: Most often, certain ‘root words’ are encountered which have been used in two senses, as exemplified by:

  • Greek root ‘-ura’ or ‘-uros’:
The original meaning of the Greek root word ‘-ura’ or ‘-uros’, is ‘urine’ but it is also meant ‘tail’. The meaning ‘urine’ is communicated by such words as ‘Urology’ [‘a study of urine’ or ‘a discourse of study of urine’]. The meaning ‘tail’ is communicated by such words as ‘Urochordata’ or Uromastix. Urochordata is a Subphylum of Chordates and has three Gk. units viz., uros (tail) + chord (rod) + ata (a group), giving the meaning ‘a group of organisms characterized by a rod (notochord) present in the tail’ (of the larva). Uromaxtix is a kind of Lizard commonly known as ‘spiny-tailed Lizard’. The word ‘Uromastix’ is made of two Gk. units viz., uros (tail) + mastix (whip), giving the meaning ‘whip-like tail’(hence, the common name based on Tail characteristics). [with reference to ‘mastix’ it to be reminded that the same word occurs as a prefix of Class – Mastigophora of Phylum-Protozoa; made of two units mastix (whip) + pherein (to bear), thus meaning ‘bearing a whip’, explained as ‘the Protozoans bearing a whip-like locomotory organ i.e., a flagellum].
  • poly’, ‘polus’ or polloi’:
This word from Gk. root literally means ‘much or many’ as expressed by various words like:

Polymorphism: poly (many) + morphe (form) = forms which are many i.e., an individual exhibiting many forms [e.g., a phenomenon exhibited by Coelenterates in the form of different individuals of a colony called, ‘zooids’(gastrozooids, blastozooids, gonozooids, dactylozooids); or as exhibited by the various members (worker, soldier, king, queen) of a colony of some social Insects like Honey Bee, Termite, Wasps etc. Polysaccharide: poly (many) + Latin

saccharum (sugar) = sugars which are many i.e., many sugars (monosaccharides like Glucose, Fructose, Ribose, Glycerose etc.) units bound together by glycosidic linkages to form a larger molecule of Polysccharides like Starch, Glycogen, Inulin, Cellulose, Pectin, Chitin etc. Polysome: poly (many) + soma (body) = a body with many units i.e., a complex formed of many bodies (i.e., Ribosomes = ribo (nucleic acid) + soma = a body made of Ribonucleic acid) strung along a single strand of messenger RNA that translates the genetic information coded in m-RNA during protein synthesis, hence Polysomes are also called as Polyribosomes. Polyembryony: poly (many) + embryon (unborn) = embryos which are many i.e., an individual producing more than one embryo from a single fertilized egg cell as exemplified by certain plants and animals. In plants Gymnosperms and Genus Citrus and in animals parasitic Hymenopterous Insects (like bees, wasps) and South American mammal, Armadillio (Dasypus) are good examples of Polyembryony.

The textual meaning and the real meaning of ‘poly’: Polysepalous’ is a technical word which is used for describing the ‘Calyx’ part of a ‘flower’. The explanation of the word given in Texts and elsewhere is ‘a condition when the ‘sepals’ constituting the Calyx, are free or separate’ from each other. In this explanation the meaning of ‘poly’ i.e., ‘many’ is not communicated, rather ‘free or separate’ is communicated which is often misleading. Further, when the term Polysepalous is seen in comparison to Gamosepalous, another condition of the flower where the Calyx is described as ‘having sepals fused or united to a greater extent’, the meaning communicated by Polysepalous stands true. The word Gamosepalous has two units viz., Gk. gamos or gamo (marriage) + Latin sepalum, meaning thereby, ‘the sepal marriage’ i.e., ‘the sepals tied together (united)’. On this basis, the fact is again reaffirmed that the meaning communicated for Polysepalous as ‘sepals free or separate’ seems to stand true. But when the synonymous term of Gamosepalous i.e., Monosepalous is looked in comparison to Polysepalous, the meaning of ‘poly’ as ‘many’, proves correct because in this case the Calyx is formed of more than one (easy to be counted) separate leaf like units i.e., ‘sepals’; the Monosepalous being communicating the fact that ‘sepal is one’ or the sepals constituting the Calyx are fused to form ‘one’ unit [hence, mono (one) + sepalous = having one sepal]. On the whole, the simple explanation goes like as under: A Polysepalous flower has many sepals (to be counted easily when in free condition) in contrast to a Gamosepalous flower where the sepals are fused together to appear as one unit (hence the word Monosepalous, synonymous to Gamosepalous)’. In the same manner, the condition of ‘petals’ in a flower is described as Polypetalous and Gamopetalous.