Friday, 16 May 2014

In the dark over moth orchids


I’ve always been intrigued by the name Phalaenopsis, or ‘moth orchid’.

I’d always assumed the name was Greek for moth, but ... well, it isn’t!

According to a learned discussion ‘phalaina’ means ‘whale’ in English. This is so both in ancient and modern Greek language. 


An authoritative source of the vocabulary of classical Greek records ‘falaina’ as a whale, while the Latin is ‘balaena’. The discussion continues about the Latin word balaena, used of baleen whale families Balaenidae and Balaenopteridae.

It can hardly be a mistake. And one can hardly change the English common name ‘moth orchid’ into ‘baleen whale orchid’, after all, can one?


So in 1825, why did Carl Blume name the genus Phalaenopsis?

Experts agree that the word ‘Phalaena’ had already been used in 1758 by Linnaeus to indicate one of the divisions of Lepidoptera. Blume must have followed Linnaeus in this respect. If there was a mistake, one writer assumes, then that’s where he thinks it must have happened.

Like many early botanists Blume did not explain the etymology of the new name. Many botanical names are not directly derived so the literal translation from Greek or Latin is often interesting but not necessarily helpful.

So why did Linnaeus use the term in the first place?

Just a thought, but what if he muddled up the word papilio, which is Latin for ... you guessed it. Moth!

By Pamela Kelt