I am Livid …

It is an uncomfortable feeling for an editor to discover that they have used a word for decades believing that they understood its meaning, only to discover that isn’t the case at all. I expect that you, too, think that you know the meaning of the word I have in mind. But since it was first coined, the word livid, from Latin, lividus, has undergone extraordinary transformations, gaining different connotations over centuries. 

Although it may be flexible enough in modern usage for its sense to be clear in context, when we look to specific epithets in Natural Latin, it is not unreasonable to demand precision and consistency in meaning and intent. For therein lie clues as to the nature of the species in question.

The Linnean ideal of the binomial is, after all, conciseness and accuracy. 

With colour epithets, there is some leeway, I suppose, to accommodate human differences in colour perception. One might confidently expect a species bearing the epithet violaceus, to show at least some hint of violet. With the Violet Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa violacea, seeing the wings shimmering in shades of violet caused me to exclaim ‘Oh, so that’s why!’

Above: Carpenter bee Xylocopa violacea. By Luc hoogenstein – CC BY-SA 4.0

The same with the Violet Oil Beetle, Meloe violaceus, whose whole body glistens in tints of deep violet blue. In the case of the European Green Lizard, Lacerta viridis – well, that’s a triumph! Its gleaming viridian skin is the very essence of green.


Above: Lacerta viridis. By Uoaei1 – CC BY-SA 4.0

While it is true that not all of the three hundred colour epithets in my lexicon can be so clearly related to their corresponding terms in modern English, lividus is so ambiguous that its use as a scientific descriptor surely ought to be regarded as limited. Its colour meanings are contradictory. It may well be unique among the colour terms in its lack of specificity. What’s odd about that is how frequently it has been used across all orders and families. I often cannot decipher what the taxonomists’ intentions were when they chose the term for a given species. In parallel with that, its journey into modern usage has embodied conflicting meanings all the way. 

The word has a colourful history that was first brought to my attention when reflecting on the meaning of the name of the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus … of which more anon.

Lividus, as described by H.A. Dade in Colour Terminology in Biology 1:   – livid; this term is difficult to define; it originally meant ‘black and blue’ as well as pale and wan, or a blackish violet or purple, or merely dusky …  roughly it may defined as the peculiar livery effect of adding grey and black to a range of hues between blue and red … 

The mycologist, Pier Andrea Saccardo 2, suggests that it is a combination of his colour numbers 13 and 14, purpureus (purple) and ruber (red). In addition, he describes it in German as Blaubraun (blue-brown), adding further to my confusion with his comparison of the colour to the multi-coloured tail of the peacock (pavoninus).   

Above: Pier Andrea Saccardo, table II, from Chromotaxia, Edition of 1894. Lividus is the penultimate colour swatch. Saccardo’s intention in publishing his Chromataxia was the standardisation of colour epithets in scientific nomenclature.   

Despite Dade’s complaint about the descriptive imprecision of lividus, the term has been used as a scientific Latin epithet for no fewer than 450 species of living things, even in species as recently described as the newly discovered asclepiad, Oxypetalum lividum, Farinaccio, in 2013. 

This list includes Cyriopagopus lividus, a burrow-dwelling tarantula native to Myanmar and Thailand, which goes by the colloquial name of Cobalt Blue tarantula. People who keep them as pets praise the beauty of their iridescent blue colour. 

Above: Cyriopagopus lividus, Cobalt Blue Tarantula. Mating pair By Flamesbane – CC BY-SA 3.0

The colours of Paracentrotus lividusthe Purple Sea Urchin, seem to encompass a range of liverish shades, so I suppose the epithet appropriate here. This is the edible sea urchin – edible, that is, if you regard salty and chewy gonads as a food source (not to mention that it flourishes near sewage outlets). They have been considered a delicacy since pre-historic times. 

Above: Paracentrotus lividus, Purple Sea Urchin. By Frédéric Ducarme – CC BY-SA 4.0

The sedge, Carex livida, which occurs across much of Eurasia and northern North America, covers the bases with its common names of Livid Sedge and Pale Sedge – they highlight either the word’s double meaning, or the confusion of the colloquial namers; the leaves are pale, they’re also a leaden blue-grey. The Mourning Widow or Dusky Crane’s-bill, Geranium phaeum, has a pale and wan variety that’s called the Leaden Dusky Cranesbill – Geranium phaeum var. lividum

Above: Geranium phaeum var lividum. By Robert Flogaus-Faust – CC BY 4.0

And in the multiple common names of the fungus Entoloma sinuatum (syn. E. lividum) one gets the sense of mycologists grasping for a clearer description of its colouration: the Livid Entoloma, Livid Pinkgill, Leaden Entoloma, and Lead Poisoner – suggestions of pink, purple, and leaden blue-grey in the melange. Is it the gills that are livid, do we think? 

Above: Entoloma sinuatum. By Gerhard Koller – This image is Image Number 40542 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0

Amphipyra livida, Black Moth, Tiefschwarze Glanzeule, Noctuelle Livide, is a moth of woods and meadows, where its larvae feed on hawkweeds, dandelions and meadow rue, which only shows its bruised colours when it reveals its underwings.

Above: Amphipyra lividaBy Dumi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


It’s my opinion that the flower of the orchid, Prosthechea livida, actually does resemble the splendid spectrum of a healing bruise. 

Above: Prosthechea livida. By Orchi – CC BY-SA 3.0

I guess I have to be satisfied that the scientific epithet is usually suggestive of the multiple colours of bruises. Perhaps I have also come to comprehend that the common understanding of livid in English is equally flexible.

Which brings me to dictionary definitions of livid: 

The root word is the Latin adjective, lividus, and my Latin Dictionary gives several alternative meanings.   

līvidus (feminine līvida, neuter līvidum). Firstly, a colour – leaden, bluish, blue. It becomes black-and-blue, when referring to bruising caused by a beating. And it was given a range of figurative meanings quite early in its career, as poets are wont to do; Ovid, Cicero and Horace used it to mean envious, invidious, spiteful, malicious.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary 3 is discursive, expanding the colour range from black-and-blue and reddish, to include ashen and pallid, these two last pale and wan are rather deathly extensions – they’re often used to suggest a corpse-like pallor. The sense of being pale with anger seems to derive from this colour meaning (although true to contradictory form, one can quite as easily be red in the face with fury). And although it may be the most common usage now, livid with rage doesn’t seem to have come into colloquial English usage until the early 20th century. 

This dance around corpse colours takes us into another dimension of livid – one that is familiar to fans of forensic detection and murders most horrid. That is, post-mortem lividity, livor mortis, the purplish red discolouration of the skin as blood settles in the lowest portions of the body after death. Since I assume, dear reader, that you may be of a nervous and delicate disposition, I’ve googled the images so you don’t have to. All the imaginable colours of a bruise are there.  

Which brings me back to the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus. Its description reads like an ode to subtle colour and texture, and is expressed in my desired precision. I adore these colour terms – so evocative. 

Its specific epithet though – still an enigma.

The cap is creamy, pale ochraceous (ochraceus), pale buff to buff (bubalinus), pale yellowish brown, pale cinnamon (cinnamomeus), sometimes almost grey (griseus), often with reddish tints, sometimes rusty spotted, viscid when wet, smooth or felty, sometimes scaly when dry. The flesh is cream (cremeus) in the cap, yellowish to orange-yellow (aurantiacus) in the stipe, usually brownish (brunneolus) in the stipe base, blueing in the cap and unchanging in the stipe when exposed to air. Tubes very short, yellow to bright yellow when young, later with some olivaceous (olivaceus) tint, blueing when exposed to air. Pores yellow (flavus) to bright yellow (luteus) when young, later with some olivaceous tint. 

So far no hints of lividity  – then, then, then … the punchline, blueing when bruised. So there you have it – and that is, indeed, the identifying feature that provided its name. 

Above: Gyrodon lividus. By Holger Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0



1. Dade, H.A., Colour Terminology in Biology, Mycological Paper No 6, The Commonwealth Mycological Institute, Kew, Surrey, 1943.  

2. Saccardo, Pier Andrea, Chromotaxia: seu, Nomenclator colorum polyglottus additis speciminibus coloratis ad usum botanicorum et zoologorum, Patavii, Typis Seminarii, 1891.

3. Livid: Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/livid. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.

Post Script: the header image here is the Colour Circle of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Farbenkreis zur Symbolisierung des menschlichen Geistes – und Seelenlebens, 1809. PD. A dissertation on the emotional symbolism of colour.   

Singing the Praises of Natural Latin

singing the praises mid 220220

An essay concerning the history and extraordinary utility of the beautiful Romance language that is scientific Latin. It is the language that is common to all naturalists.

I call it Natural Latin.

The Extravagant Partisanship of the Leek-Green Faction

When first I became a maker of wood-meadows, it was in response to the devastating losses in flora and fauna that we have witnessed during my lifetime. That over 97% of lowland meadows have gone under the plough, with a similar degree of disappearance in coppiced woodlands – never mind all those miles of mixed hedgerows – prompted the following thoughts:
If we’ve lost all those from the base of the ecological pyramid, what has happened to the fauna that depended on them? The grievous declines in invertebrate pollinators of every stripe, and of the songbirds, which, in turn, depend on them to feed their nestlings, seem to have run in parallel. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

I know fine well that the recreation of a wood-meadow ecosystem by planting rather than natural regeneration is controversial. But perhaps by far the most important part of any such attempt must be to ensure that the plants in the wood-meadow provide not only nectar and pollen, but also the larval food sources for their young. This implies detailed study of the history of the ecosystem, and of the component parts, not only in terms of species, but especially in relation to the long-term management. It’s an ancient system, probably dating back  7,000–8,000 years. It was once widespread in temperate Northern Europe, is possibly one of the oldest known forms of human management, and it supports one of the most diverse of plant communities  on the planet.

That’s all part of my back-story now. But perhaps the biggest part of the biggest part of my researches was my discovery of moths, and the subsequent searches for the floral and arboreal associations and relationships of moths and other Lepidoptera.
And of the moth that first captured my heart in a single moment of pure trembling enchantment? How could I not have known such a joyous thing existed, or that it would inspire such a sense of wonder? A sumptuous beauty in clothed in emerald velveteen that came to mind each time I closed my eyes for weeks after my first sighting.

It was Pseudoips prasinana (L.), the Green Silver-lines. And this is why.


Above and featured photo: Pseudoips prasinana, Green Silver-lines, both taken in an East Sussex woodland by Hildesvini. Own work, CC0

The Green Silver-lines is on the wing between May and July, having hatched from its tough boat-shaped pupa on the underside of the leaves of its larval food plants: Downy and Silver birches, oaks, hazel and elms – they should all be major components in any new copse plantings, in my opinion. And no, it’s not enough just to plant flowers – many other species of moth use our native trees too, often in numbers that far outstrip those of meadow flowers.  As I discovered when reading that seminal ecological paper, by Robert Southwood, The number of insect species associated with various trees.(1961). [See acknowledgements].

There have been other joys on this entomological journey. Oh, etymology, which has a constant source of wonder to me. There’s an English word, prasinous, which means of a clear, lively green colour, and it’s derived from the Ancient Greek, πρᾰ́σῐνος prásinos, meaning leek-green, light green. So there you have it: prasinus m ‎(feminine prasina, neuter prasinum) – leek green.
But as with many specific epithets that denote colour – and they’re used in Natural Latin for both flora and fauna – the actual shade is seldom precise. There are upwards of 1096 colour names to choose from. I used three major references to help track them down, mostly H.A. Dade’s Colour Terminology in Biology, and Ridgway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912). 
The spectrum of the colour prasina looks something like this:
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My further etymological explorations lead me to discover that the term prasinus has been exploited right across the natural spectrum- not only by entomologists.


Above: Anaplectoides prasina,  the Green Arches moth.
By Bernard Dupont, France. CC BY-SA 2.0


Above: Mimoides pausanias prasinus. Costa Rica, Limon Province, S. Rio Blanca. By kind permission of Andy Warren. Thanks Andy!

Big Beak, Little Body

Above: Emerald toucanet, Aulacorhynchus prasinos, at the Moody Garden’s Rainforest Pyramid, by Kati Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Above: A Green Moray Eel, Gymnothorax prasinus, left and Greyface Moray Eel, Gymnothorax thrysoideus, sharing a lair. Green Island, South West Rocks, NSW By Richard Ling – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

And to include the amphibians too, thus covering all groups …

Nymphargus prasinus 9644
The Rio Calina Cochran Frog, Nymphargus prasinus (Duellman, 1981). A species of glass frog. Photo: William E Duellman via CalPhotos. © 2010 Division of Herpetology, University of Kansas.

That, however, is not the end of it. For I discovered that Claudius, Nero and Caligula were also enthusiastic leek-greeners. The leek-green faction of charioteers in the Roman circus, as opposed to the reds, blues and whites,  were known as – you’ve guessed it. The prasina, or prasinoi. You will note that, since the circuit was conducted in an anti-clockwise fashion, the greens are in the lead. And if, as Robert Graves would have us believe, Claudius enjoyed such extravagant partisanship of the leek-green faction, well frankly … so do I.

Prasinoi Mosaico_del_circo_MCGR_2285

Above: Le quatro equipas (blau, verde, blanc, rubie) al circo. Mosaico trovate a Lyon (rue Jarente) in 1806. Charioteers. By QuartierLatin1968 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Acknowledgements: I should like to thank entomologist, Robin Howard, for introducing me to both the Green Silver-lines, and to the invaluable A. Maitland Emmett, The Scientific Names Of The British Lepidoptera: Their History And Meaning. Harley Books. (1991). I now sleep with this beneath my pillow, in the hope that some form of osmosis may occur.
And to the late and sorely missed Professor Simon Leather, for introducing me to Southwood, T.R.E. (1961). The number of insect species associated with. various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8. https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/entomological-classics-southwood-1961-the-number-of-insect-species-associated-with-various-trees/

An Innocent Passion?

The vernacular names of our flora and fauna are – and will ever be – a fascinating and deeply ingrained part of our linguistic and cultural heritage. If we seem obdurately attached to them, it must in part be because they belong to our oral tradition, as often as not learned at grandmother’s knee. Many common names are charming, as with love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, or forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Some are reminders of widespread use in folk medicine. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, for example, was used as a love charm and for other disorders of the heart.

One of the enchantments in the etymology of many scientific terms used in Natural Latin is how intimately intertwined the vernacular and the Latin can be – not all are as saccharine as those above, and neither would your granny approve of them.

Since the season for many of our wild orchids is now upon us, I’ll begin with the resolutely masculine Orchis mascula, L., the Early Purple Orchid, whose name in both its parts implies manliness. The specific epithet is obvious. The generic, Orchis, less so.

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Reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905, supplemented edition 1917–1926).













Source: http://runeberg.org/nordflor/401.html  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=709470

The literal translation from Latin is testicle – though the derivation may not be apparent from the beauty of the flower. See the paired tubers at the root, however, and it’s clear to see that the reference is anthropomorphic. Incidentally, the medical term for the removal of testicles is … orchidectomy.

Such frankness has origins in bawdier, or at least, less inhibited times. Indeed, such venereal allusions date back at least as Pliny. The old common names in English include dog’s stones (i.e. testicles), fool’s stones, and cullions, in reference to the testicular tubers. A similar set are imaginatively applied in French to the Early Purple and to the Green-winged orchid, Orchis morio L., (now Anacamptis morio), for which the only genteel name I have found is Petite Dame des Prés, Little Lady of the meadows. More typical are such as Couillon de Chien, Couillon de Renard, as in the old English cullions. In Orchis Bouffon, literally Fool’s or Jester’s orchid, the reference is to Fool’s stones, rather than to an idiot per se, just as in English.

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Anacamptis morio, illustrated under its older, Linnean name Orchis morio. From Flora Batava, Volume 7 (1830), Janus (Jan) Kops;  Illustrator Christiaan Sepp – http://www.BioLib.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18893645

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Doctrine of Signatures that talismanic and aphrodisiacal virtues were ascribed to the orchid root.

As Dioscorides has it:

… if men do eat of the great full or fat roots of these kinds of dog’s stones, they cause them to beget male children.

In Thessaly, the women give the tender full root to be drunk in goat’s milk to move bodily lust

Maude Grieves describes salep, the concoction prepared from the ground tubers of both O. mascula and A. morio, as a wholesome and nutritious drink, and comments coyly that witches used them in their love potions. Others attribute more earthy qualities – those of a powerful aphrodisiac.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), Alchemist, Physician, Botanist, wrote thus: … behold the Satyrion root, is it not formed like the male privy parts? No one can deny this. Accordingly magic discovered it and revealed that it can restore a man’s virility and passion.

Satyrion is another, older Roman name for Orchis, (8th Century BCE) that derives from the association with satyrs, who ate orchid tubers and were impelled by so doing to their habitual excesses.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Nymphs and Satyr (1873). https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25857924 

The Greek name for these orchids was priapiscus. Priāpiscus, πριαπίσκος: a plant that excited passion, fool-stones, orchis.It takes little imagination to see where this is leading. A minor God in all but one respect, the rustic Priapus had responsibilities in the traditional small-god realms of fertility, livestock, fruit and gardens. Oh, and genitalia. He is, of course, best remembered for his huge and painfully permanent erection, which lives on in the modern medical term for the same, priapism.

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Priapus with Caduceus. Anonymous fresco in Pompeii, between 89 BC and 79 AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), Italia.

In the modern naturalist, orchids do still inflame passions, though now, it seems, a more innocent one than was formerly the case. Find out more by clicking the links below.

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Orchis mascula, NY roadside IMG_1001


Left: the sumptuous, pleated rosette of Orchis mascula, North Yorkshire roadside verge, spring 2016

















Above: Flower spike of Orchis mascula,  arising from the rosette shown above.

Orchis mascula (L.) L. Early Purple Orchid. A denizen of woodlands, scrub, and grasslands, also found on road verges, flowering from April to June in the UK.

Species account: http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=node/805

Distribution map: http://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.caq

National Biodiversity Network data: https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NBNSYS0000002326


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Anacamptis morio (L.) R.M. Bateman, Pridgeon, & M.W. Chase (Orchis morio L.) Green-winged Orchid. The flower colour is variable, ranging from palest pink to red-pink, and purple-violet; it is the upper tepals with green veins that give rise to the common name. A native of grassy habitats including floodplain meadows, flowering from May to June.






Scroll down to see the species account: http://bsbi.org/species-accounts

National Biodiversity Network data: https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NHMSYS0000455893