Latin can be incredibly helpful in finding the correct target term for plants or animals. And it can be a nightmare for us terminologists, when people use it just because it sounds hip.
Experts in the field of biology, botany, zoology, etc., have the luxury of using Latin as their ‘universal translator,’ as a horticulturalist put it so aptly in the San Jose Mercury News. The following example shows how we in translation benefit from it: A translator working on a German text about, say, a Kaisergoldfliege, first needs to find the Latin equivalent. An online search will reveal that the Latin name is Lucilia ceasar, according to Linneus (who Oeser and Picht justly call the founder of terminology research in Hoffmann’s “ Fachsprachen – Languages for Special Purposes”). It takes another online search to see that it is referred to as green bottle fly in English. A picture certainly helps to ascertain that it is the same animal.
This is the method that we planned to apply a few years ago, when the team responsible for the Microsoft game franchise Zoo Tycoon 2 approached the terminology team for help. Unfortunately, the project never came through. But we would have set up an entry for the common name and one for the scientific name and added a picture. That would have greatly enabled the target terminologists to find the correct equivalents in their language.
Latin is not so helpful when it is used incorrectly to form new terms, and yet that is fairly common. A Microsoft team was looking to name a reporting tool that detects something and came up with the term “detectoid.” Anyone who went through five years of Latin (albeit grudgingly) and through a course on medical terminology (more happily) like myself will recognize -oid as the suffix for “resembling” or “like.” But the tool didn’t “resemble” anything; it just did detect. Anyone who encountered the term without explanation and who was familiar with the meaning of –oid, would have been distracted. Upon further research, I also found the following argument against it: The suffix is used in hacker jargon (see this wonderful entry in Foldoc). After that it was easy to argue against “detectoid”—no incorrect application of existing meaning, and no jargon, least of all hacker jargon!
Latin is a good tool for terminologists in many fields. Terminologists in scientific disciplines or our colleagues in medical informatics and ontology rely on its clarity all the time. If used incorrectly, it can lead to unclear source terminology and potentially even worse target terms. On that note—absit iniuria verbis, or “let injury be absent from (these) words.”