Latin, Greek and English words
For example, donate is a Latin-based verb meaning ‘to give,’ human is a Latin-based word referring to mankind, paternal is a Latin-based adjective referring to a father. Latin terms were borrowed earlier and are often more familiar than Greek terms borrowed later. For example, didonai is the Greek verb ‘to give,’ from which English gets antidote, something given against a toxin, to counteract its effects, from anti Greek, against + dotos Greek, given.
Why Latin? For almost two thousand years, up to the end of the seventeenth century, scientific textbooks were written in Latin. If you were a student at the Sorbonne, at Oxford, or at Bologna, you learned natural history, later called botany and zoology, from books written in Latin but based largely on the writings of early Greek scientists. The first American medical textbooks used at Harvard University were written in Latin.
But again, why use “dead” languages, Latin and Classical Greek, to form scientific and technical terms? First, it is traditional—as we saw above. Second, in a “dead” language, the meaning of a word does not change. It is frozen. Callus will always mean ‘hard skin’ in Latin. In a living language, words acquire new meanings. In 1930, acid meant a chemical like the acetic acid in vinegar. Nowadays “acid” is English slang for LSD, a dangerous hallucinogenic drug. Because precise meaning and precise use of words is crucial in all forms of scientific communication, it helps to be able to make new medical terms from Latin and Greek roots whose meanings do not alter over time.
As you read about the exotic origin of plant names, you will see that much Botanical Latin is derived from ancient Greek words. Why? First, the Greeks got around to studying and naming plants long before the Romans did. So there exists in ancient Greek texts a large vocabulary of plant names. Second, compared to the Latin language, ancient Greek simply had more words, had a larger and more sophisticated vocabulary. Latin is a terse tongue, a language that valued concise utterance. Thus Latin has few words with many meanings. Therefore in Latin, context is everything. This is not as true in Greek, a language with an inherent predilection for forming compound words with felicity, to produce pleasant-sounding and logical names. Unfortunately this aptness and euphony of nomenclature does not hold for all botanical names formed from Greek roots by modern botanists. Some of these new terms are frankly ugly and incapable of being pronounced easily. Yes, there are compound words in Latin, but not nearly as many as in ancient Greek. Stated plainly, it was easier to make new words in Greek than in Latin.